Game on. Serena Williams is one match away from her 14th Grand Slam title, a couple of sets away from her fifth Wimbledon crown and, most important of all, within touching distance of her first major trophy since 2010. And after her brutal 6-3, 7-6(6) pounding of Victoria Azarenka, she looks like she means business.
In the two sets she needed to get herself to the final, she cracked down 24 aces, a world record in women’s tennis. She had set a new Wimbledon record in the third round against Jie Zheng, pounding the Chinese with a barrage of 23 aces. That though, was over three sets – Wednesday’s performance put that one to shame. The only problem was that the new world record holder did not believe it.
“I had absolutely no idea,” she said of the record. “It really didn't feel like I hit 24 aces at all. I honestly felt like I hit maybe 10. Like I wasn't going for that much. I was just going to play well, to serve well, to do the best I could.
“I honestly didn't feel great on my serve today. I really didn't. I think yesterday I felt pretty good. I don't know. I thought my serve was off, and apparently, clearly, it wasn't, so maybe I should be off a little more.”
The last time Williams looked this focused and this determined, she was on her way to thrashing Vera Zvonareva on Centre Court and getting her hands on the Venus Rosewater Dish. Again. At the time, she was the world No.1, the top seed and as the Australian Open champion, she looked for all the world as if she was about to put a stranglehold on the women’s game. This was Serena back to her best and it appeared that no one was going to be able to stop her. That is when it all went horribly wrong.
A freak accident in a Munich restaurant – she cut her foot on some glass – sidelined her for the rest of the year. That was bad enough but when she was rushed to hospital the following March with a
pulmonary embolism, suddenly tennis did not seem so important. This was a life-threatening condition and simply walking out of the hospital unaided would have been regarded as a major achievement, much less playing professional sport at the highest level.
But back she came last June, playing her first match in almost a year at Eastbourne. From there – and a fourth round appearance in SW19 – she has elbowed her way back up the rankings, reaching the US Open final last summer, and now, 12 months on from her comeback, she is standing in her seventh Wimbledon final. Having worked so hard to get here, it is unlikely she will allow Agnieszka Radwanska so much as a sniff of a chance on Saturday.
“I'm just happy,” she said. “I'm so happy to be playing. I'm so happy to be on the court. I feel like this is where I belong. I mean, maybe I don't belong in a relationship. Maybe I don't belong somewhere else. But I know for a fact I do belong on this tennis court.”
She certainly looked as if she belonged in the final. Williams was strong, she was ferocious and she was utterly dominant. So impressive did she look that her nephew, sitting in the players’ box next to Venus, was sound asleep. He was only woken from his nap when Venus started prodding him.
Both eyes open and more or less alert, he stayed awake long enough to see Auntie Serena break Azarenka and close out the first set in just 33 minutes.
Now, here was an interesting factoid: Serena can be quite vocal when the chips are down on court and does not so much grunt as roar when she goes for a winner. But against Azarenka, she of the two-tone wail that starts when the ball leaves her racket and ends round about the time her opponent tries to get a string on the ball, Serena was awfully quiet. There was the howl of “COME ON!” when she broke again for a 2-1 lead in the second set, and there was a bit of a growl when she got nervous towards the end of that set, but she was a church mouse beside Azarenka’s wailing banshee.
Despite getting a little tight in the second set – an unfortunate lapse that coincided with Azarenka launching on last charge for the final – Williams was never threatened. Back from the annus horribilis, she looks ready to lift that famous trophy one more time.
“I have so much appreciation for every moment on the court,” she said. “I really take pride in playing, especially playing such big, amazing tournaments like this. I just want to do the absolute best that I can at all moments.”
And Serena’s best has always been so much better than anyone else’s.