Purely in a chronological sense, Serena Williams stands in the autumn of her career.
If her career could be likened to a 12-month calendar year, she’s in late September as opposed to early April. More years are behind her than in front of her as a transcendent tennis player. Her first major title came 16 years ago, at the 1999 U.S. Open. She might have six years left on tour if things go really well.
Consider that Martina Navratilova’s last great hurrah at Wimbledon came at age 37, when — in 1994 — she played a young Spanish woman, Conchita Martinez, in a Wimbledon singles final. If Serena is able to get even four more productive years out of her career, it will be a blessing for the sport and its fans.
Yes, the circles of life were drawn and completed on Saturday at Centre Court. Navratilova won Wimbledon championships 12 years apart, in 1978 and 1990. Serena Williams won this tournament in 2002, and by defeating another young Spanish woman — 21-year-old Garbine Muguruza — the 33-year-old has established a 13-year span between championships at The All-England Club.
The address of the club is SW19, and given Serena’s initials, this title gets to be called “SW21,” the product of an astonishing 21-4 record in major finals. It’s that ability to so consistently seal the deal in major finals which has given Serena a new set of milestones, not to mention a repeat edition of an old one, the “Serena Slam,” with four straight major championships, first achieved in 2002 and 2003.
Winning Wimbledons 13 years apart? Winning separate Serena Slams 12 years apart? Serena has eclipsed Navratilova in two specific ways, adding to her already-enormous place in the living history of tennis.
This might be autumn strictly on a chronological level, but in terms of the robust and convincing nature in which Serena won this Wimbledon (after surviving that one scare in the third round against Heather Watson), her career sure feels like a green and flourishing springtime. Autumn suggests decline, but Serena Jameka Williams has constructed an Autumn Empire. Just a few months short of her 34th birthday, she’s not merely holding her own or winning occasional major titles; she’s destroying the sport, putting it at her feet with ruthless and steady efficiency.
If the French Open marked a series of escapes for Serena, a constant stream of struggles in which she was fighting her form all the way, this Wimbledon — the Watson match excepted — was different. During the past fortnight in England, Serena saw opponents play really well for most or all of a set… and then she promptly transcended them. This was especially true in the quarterfinals against Victoria Azarenka — the match of the tournament on the women’s side — and it was true to a lesser but still real extent on Championship Saturday against Muguruza, whose future is as bright as the sun-drenched afternoon which greeted Centre Court.
In a big-stage match between a 33-year-old and a 21-year-old — especially when the 33-year-old is enjoying the prime years of her career — the focus must always first flow to the younger player. The first tension point of this final was always going to surround Muguruza’s ability to announce her presence on court. With two straight difficult service holds — one of them from 15-40 down — Muguruza took a 4-2 lead against a nervous Serena and fundamentally managed to say, “I’m here, and I’m ready for the moment. Serena, you’re going to have to take this away from me.”
This message is something consistently conveyed by Azarenka, but few of Serena’s other conteporaries are regularly able to broadcast this statement. Muguruza played well on an absolute scale, but what was more important and impressive about those first six games is that Muguruza didn’t shrink in the heat of the moment or the enormity of the scene before her. Once this happened, Serena did have to take the match from Muguruza.
Consistent with how she’s handled this whole fortnight, that’s exactly what Serena did. Sure, she did get lucky at 4-3, with Muguruza trying to maintain her first-set lead; on break point, Serena mis-hit a return, but it landed in near the baseline, and Serena used that one bit of fortune to break for 4-4. However, once that grain of luck fell her way, Serena had to make use of it.
She dominated the next two games to tuck away the set, and when Muguruza realized how well she played in that set, the fact that she had nothing to show for it created an undeniable shift in the weight of the proceedings. Serena built a 5-1 lead with imposing play, and even though a raging attack of nerves led to two straight losses of serve, her first-serve return — the difference in the match — remained locked in. She kept forcing Muguruza to hit high-pressure shots as a server, denying the Spaniard the cheap points she needed at critical junctures. Serving to stay in the match at 4-5 in the second set, Muguruza flinched, and that’s all Serena needed to win a sixth Wimbledon and — on a larger historical level — the third leg of the calendar Grand Slam. The hype train for the U.S. Open — when Serena will try to not only bag the calendar slam, but tie Steffi Graf for major titles with 22 — can now begin to roll.
What was instructive about the conclusion to the match — with Serena squandering most of her 5-1 lead but then breaking at 5-4 to win the title — is that the arc of events mirrored the beautiful gift Serena’s career has been to tennis… and herself.
From 5-1 to 5-4, the flow of occurrences in the match crashed down upon Serena, leaving her exasperated and in need of a sorting-out process, one which required more than a little time (at least when seen through the prism of getting broken twice, not just once). One can liken that sequence to the injuries and health problems which dogged Serena in 2010 and 2011 and threatened her life for a period of time. Life and its unpredictability made tennis utterly unimportant for Serena; merely surviving — literally — was all that mattered. Serena did not have to be resilient in a tennis sense; she just had to be resilient as a person and as a living being.
Serena would not have been blamed or viewed negatively by anyone (anyone with a heart, at least) had she decided to retire after her pulmonary embolism in 2011. She was almost 30. She had won 13 majors and one Serena Slam.
It’s easy with the benefit of hindsight to say that Serena would have left a lot on the table had she retired, but be honest with yourself: Did you see THIS late-career surge? Did anyone imagine how great Serena’s Autumn Empire could ever become?
Serena’s 21 majors have largely come in clusters. A few titles were scattered here and there, but they mostly arrived in bunches. The first two clusters went like this: 5 in a span of 6 majors in 2002 and 2003 (with the Serena Slam as part of that run); 5 in a span of 8 majors from 2008 through 2010. Following the embolism, Serena — as mentioned above — owned 13 majors. Entirely in her 30s, Serena has won 8 majors in the past 13 events, starting with the 2012 U.S. Open. EIGHT.
Compare that to the other giants of women’s tennis for a moment. Martina, Chris Evert, and Steffi were around for a long time in their respective careers, but how great was their longevity at the back ends of their respective tennis journeys?
Martina won 3 majors after turning 30. Evert won 2. Graf? Zero.
Serena’s eight majors after age 30 are more than those three players’ totals combined.
That total is likely to grow, too, in the next few years.
The resilience of Serena against Muguruza on Saturday — transcending in the first set at 2-4, and then rebounding in the second set after losing those three straight games to get to 5-4 — is precisely what embodies and fuels her career. Resilience is everything that’s great about Serena as a performer, but also as a person. Her return to Indian Wells this year — a sign of forgiveness, accompanied by a thoughtful and powerful pursuit of social justice — should make her the Sports Illustrated Sportswoman Of The Year. More importantly, that personal resilience is greater in the long run than the resilience she has shown as a tennis player.
Given how historically rare and remarkable this Autumn Empire is to behold — what other tennis player has been this great at this late an age? — that’s saying quite a lot.
Friday, I wrote about how it’s hard to find the words and the linguistic devices that can adequately describe extraordinary people when they perform extraordinary feats. Serena Williams’ age-defying march — deeper and deeper into the history books, with even more history awaiting her (whether captured or not) at the U.S. Open — is very much an example of a player leaving a writer feeling utterly inadequate in the ability to capture the fullness of a moment. A Wimbledon championship, Serena Slam (No. 2), and third leg of a Calendar Slam are really too much to handle.
13 years between Wimbledon titles. 12 years between Serena Slams. That 21-4 record in major finals. At some point, the numbers and the facts make their own supremely powerful statements.
Yet, beyond those numbers, and beyond even the tennis court where she so fully commands her sport at a comparatively advanced age, Serena Williams — as a person more than an athlete — has so poignantly shown us how resilient she truly is. That she’s even alive right now is something that couldn’t have been taken for granted four years ago. She had to be strong just to heal her body, let alone win eight more majors after turning 30.
Therein lies the secret of how — and why — Serena won “SW21” at SW19: All the hardships and mortal threats she’s endured have made her more grateful, more appreciative of every moment. Serena cherishes every moment tennis can give her, and it shows.
No wonder Serena is paying tennis back, giving the sport so many history-soaked occasions and milestones in which to revel.
That this latest immersion in history arrives at tennis’s most historic and fabled setting only adds to the weight of what Serena Williams has done in this, her autumnal springtime as an athlete.