The more things change, the more they can remain the same. Serena Williams mostly battles younger opponents now, the big stage finals that once seemed routine against her sister Venus now seeming like a distant memory as crafty and increasingly confident competitors stake their own claims on Grand Slam success.
Yet 30-year-old Serena retains that same competitive intensity that saw her claim her first Wimbledon title at the 2002 Championships. In notching up her fifth Wimbledon and 14th major victory with a 6-1, 5-7, 6-2 win over Agnieszka Radwanska in a two hour and two-minute final, Serena showed that when she’s in full health, she can also dominate the women’s game for many years to come.
Serena’s victory marked the seventh consecutive Grand Slam with a seventh different female champion. Further showcasing the transient nature of women’s tennis in recent years, first-time finalist Radwanska was the ninth member of the current top 10 women to progress to a Grand Slam final. The other top-tenner, Angelique Kerber, defeated four-time major champion Kim Clijsters to progress to a semi-final for the first time.
But if those statistics had earlier created a sense of an even playing field in women’s tennis, it’s considerably diminished following Serena’s latest success. Never has the prolific champion had to fight so hard to claim a Grand Slam title. Aside from the three-set battles against Zheng Jie in the third round, Yaroslava Shvedova in the fourth and then again in the final, she’s also endured injury and illness problems that would be unimaginable for anybody, let alone a top tennis player.
It had been a triumphant yet frustrating return to the All England Club in 2011; Serena’s appearance at the Championships marked only her second tournament since she’d claimed the 2010 title, but she was uncharacteristically thwarted in the fourth round. Those setbacks, combined with her shock first round loss at the recent French Open, thus made her 2012 victory the most special one of all.
“You know, coming here and winning today is amazing because, you know, literally last year I was ranked almost 200,” Serena said of the career-threatening foot injury, which required multiple surgeries and was followed by a more serious pulmonary embolism. “You know, it's been an unbelievable journey for me.”
The challenges will keep coming for Serena and her rare sign of nerves in the final highlighted her awareness of the younger and equally-hungry opponents with their own dreams of Grand Slam domination. “I have to give credit where credit's due. She started playing really, really well,” Serena said of Radwanska’s second-set fight back , in which she clawed back a break of serve and subsequently pushed the match into a third set. “She started playing excellent grass court tennis, getting a lot of balls back, and I panicked a little bit and I shouldn't have. I usually don't.”
Still, finding a way to win in the highest-pressure situations is what Serena does best. Most telling in this tournament were her straight-sets victories over Victoria Azarenka, the 2011 Australian Open champion and Petra Kvitova, the defending Wimbledon champion. “I think that’s why she’s the great champion, because she knows what she needs to play in the important points ... that it's really tough to beat her.” Kvitova said following her quarter-final exit to the eventual champion.
The post-Wimbledon rankings will see Azarenka return to world No. 1, Radwanska peak at a career high No. 2 and Maria Sharapova sitting in third spot. Serena, who at the same time last year was well outside the world’s top 100, is thrilled to return to world No. 4 – and clearly capable of reclaiming the world No. 1 ranking in the not-too-distant future.
That’s particularly true when you consider that at age 30, Serena is not only serving stronger than ever – her 102 aces throughout the Wimbledon fortnight were a Championship record – but also feeling healthier than she can ever recall.
“I have never felt better,” Serena said. “ This whole tournament I have pretty much been injury‑free. I played so much. Normally I play two events, but this one was different because I played every day, two matches a day for a while. I haven't done that in a long time, and I felt great.”
With her fifth Wimbledon victory and 14th Grand Slam, Serena has seven more majors than any other active player, Venus the next-most successful champion with seven. She’s also within reach of 18 major titles that both Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert claimed in their careers - and perhaps, at a stretch, she could even match Steffi Graf’s 22.
Where some players with such records struggle to maintain motivation, Serena only becomes hungrier with every success. The newly-crowned champion was near incredulous when asked what she could possibly want next. “Are you kidding?” she laughed. “The US Open, the Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon 2013, the Championships.”
It’s not as far-fetched as it might seem. Recent women’s tennis history might show that you never know where the next major champion might come from, but Wimbledon 2012 demonstrated that there’s also little sign that Serena, the most accomplished one of all, will ever leave.