No matter how ambitious, prepared and confident her opponents, Serena Williams simply ascends to a level that cannot be matched, writes Tumaini Carayol after the American won her 22nd Grand Slam title at Wimbledon.
Twenty minutes after losing her dream slam final, Angelique Kerber entered her press conference with a smile rippling across her face. Kerber played a brilliant final on Centre Court, her bulging tree trunk legs covering every inch of grass and as she hauled herself to the corners of the court for two hours. Not only did Kerber chase down every last rocket from Williams, but she used the American’s own weaponry against her, redirecting Williams’ pace with either depth or stunning angles as she stepped in to attack whenever the opportunity arose.
Even after dropping the first set 7-5, Kerber kept her spirits up and she routinely worked her way through holds of serve. She hit some outrageous shots throughout her second slam final - one time even chasing a geometrically impossible Williams angle three feet beyond the furthest sideline before exploding into a backhand down the line. The 28-year-old knew she was playing great tennis and clearly believed that if she continued to take care of her own serve, a chance would come on Williams serve.
She was correct. The chance finally arrived at 3-3 in the second set after a loose Williams backhand flew well long. Kerber took a deep breath, she stepped to the baseline and then, in the blink of an eye, she was suddenly reduced to a mere onlooker. Down 3-3 30-40, Williams served one 117mph ace out wide followed by one 124mph ace down the middle ‘T’. Then, to add insult to Kerber’s profusely bleeding injuries, she secured the hold by weaving together a perfectly constructed long rally. Kerber lost the match and the Wimbledon title 7-5 6-3. She didn’t win another game, but even in defeat she could only smile.
Williams’ victories are best seen through the lens of the opponents who have been so consistently thrown to the wayside. No matter how ambitious, prepared and confident, there is always a limit to what they can actually do against her. When Williams is dialled up and focused, she simply ascends to a level that the rest of her opponents are incapable of competing with her.
This isn’t a recent development. Both Williams sisters were responsible for transforming women’s tennis to the power-infused sport that exists today. After Venus tore through a 35 match winning streak in 2000 and Serena one-upped her sister by winning her first Serena Slam, in the intervening 14 years the majority of players have spent their days trying to copy, replicate and emulate the Williams magic. The aggressive players continue to maintain the standards of aggression set by the Williams sisters and even a defensive player like Kerber has been forced to take more risks and become a more combative personality, as is the greatest in the world.
Serena Williams celebrates winning her womens singles final match against Germany's Angelique Kerber
But over 17 years of winning slam titles and across countless generations armed with their own specific style and interpretation of the Williams blueprint, Serena Williams has never been usurped. Thus, Williams’ 22nd slam may numerically put her on par with Steffi Graf’s achievements, but in the bigger picture it represents precisely nothing. Qualitatively, she has been the greatest to ever play the game long before today’s victory. Nobody in the history of women’s tennis has ever played the sport at a higher level than her.
Throughout the fortnight, Williams has been conspicuous in her attempts to big herself up and exude her greatness.
“For anyone else in this whole planet, [reaching three finals in 2016] would be a wonderful accomplishment,” Williams said after her semi-final victory over Elena Vesnina. “For me, it’s not enough. But I think that’s what makes me different. That’s what makes me Serena.”
Image credit: PA Sport
After defeating Kerber, she explained why and she revealed that this was a direct consequence of what she has been attempting to do over the past year. Williams’ pursuit of number 22 has been one of the challenges of her career. She admitted to having sleepless nights in the past months as she attempted to clinch the slam that would place her even with Steffi Graf. The pressure of the previous two slam finals and her slim failure to win the Grand Slam in 2015 all had a profound effect on her mentality. Affected by the constant talk of her record chasing, Williams fell into the trap of chasing history instead of focusing on single victories and celebrating each one in turn.
“I put a lot of that pressure on myself,” she said. “Obviously had some really tough losses. I had to start looking at positives, not focusing on that one loss per tournament which really isn't bad, and for anyone else on this tour would be completely happy about it. Once I started focusing more on the positives, I realized that I'm pretty good. Then I started playing a little better.”
Williams’ attempts to humbly pat herself on the back drew a round of laughter. The last time Williams was “pretty good”, she was still in her teens. Today, she is only the greatest ever.