The Resurgence of Serena

May 22, 2009 06:25 AM

By Erin Bruehl

There was the backhand cross-court shot, the airborne racquet and the jumping up-and-down repeatedly while screaming, as applause and cheers rained down on her from over 20,000 people in Arthur Ashe Stadium.

It was a great scene for Serena Williams and anyone who is a Serena fan. With the backhand shot, it landed as a winner left on match point to earn her the 6-4, 7-5 victory over Jelena Jankovic and her third US Open title. It was a hard-fought match filled with displays of athleticism, shot variety and hard-hitting rallies between both players.

In short, it was one of the best US Open women’s finals in recent memory.

For Williams, it is her first US Open title since 2002 and ninth career Grand Slam title, making her just the sixth woman in the Open Era to win nine or more Grand Slams. And with just her 27th birthday at the end of the month, Williams’ career is far from over.

In fact, it seems to be resurging.

With the victory, Williams takes over the No. 1 world ranking today for the first time since August 2003, back when there was little doubt as to her dominance of the WTA Tour, when she won five out of six Grand Slam titles between 2002 and 2003. She held the No. 1 ranking for 57 weeks between July 2002 and August 2003.

The gap between No. 1 world rankings is the longest in history, for a man or woman.

Since then, Williams has won just two other Grand Slams – the 2007 Australian Open and her third US Open title Sunday. Injuries were a large factor, as she was especially hit hard in 2005 and 2006, falling to No. 140 in the world at one point in ’06. Outside interests have also been a factor, and she been criticized for appearing out of shape at various times.

Not anymore.

“I feel like I'm going to be No. 1 again, win lots of Grand Slams. It doesn't stop here,” Williams said after her victory. “Like I said before, I feel like I have a new career, like I feel so young, and I feel so energized to play every week and to play every tournament. I feel like there's just so much that I can do in my career yet, and I've never felt like I've played my best tennis.”

Her best tennis was on display throughout the 2008 US Open, as she swept to the title without dropping a single set. She fought her way past her older sister Venus in two tight tiebreak sets in the quarterfinals in arguably the best match the sisters have ever played. Anyone watching her efforts and reactions throughout the fortnight in Flushing Meadows could not doubt her determination and fitness.

Against Jankovic, Williams displayed her usual power (smacking serves as high as 120 mph), as well as great athleticism and volleys – no doubt helped by her playing doubles with Venus this year – earning them the Wimbledon doubles title and Olympic gold medal in Beijing. She also hit 44 winners to 15 for Jankovic.

“I'm so excited, I can't even describe it,” she said. “Usually after a Grand Slam, I feel like I still have another match to play, but I don't really feel that way today. I feel like it's done, and it's all over, and I'm so excited. I just -- I think it showed on the court.”

The US Open was also Williams’ first career Grand Slam title back in 1999, when she was a 17-year-old with her hair full of beads. She had a similar feeling going into both 1999 and 2008 – confidence.

“'99 was so special because I knew I was going to win it before. I just felt it. And then, God, I felt that coming into this tournament, too. I felt I was going to win,” she said. “Then also I wanted it so bad in '99. It was my first Grand Slam, so you can't really take that away.”

Now as a 26-year-old, Williams has her own fashion design label, Aneres, and has also dabbled in an acting career. There have been rumors of her dating rapper Common, who was in Flushing Meadows.

Gone are the beads, the blonde hair, as well as the catsuit she famously once wore. Serena won Sunday night in a basic but pretty reddish-pink Nike tennis dress with matching headband - more typical of her outfits lately.

Both she and Venus have taken criticism for not playing a lot of tournaments in recent years and not focusing entirely on tennis with so many outside interests. It has also been argued that that is perhaps just what has contributed to their longevity in the game – that it has not been the only thing in their lives.

Whatever the reasons are, Serena seems to have found a great balance in 2008 and has that fire to win. She has now not missed a Grand Slam since 2006.

“I've been working so hard all year. Sometimes I wake up at like 6:00 in the morning to go practice, and it was too dark. I would have to wait until it gets light. It's just paying off,” she said. “No one really, really knows the work that an athlete puts in. You know, it's worth it. And then I felt like, Gosh, I've been working the hardest. I should win.”

“I just like to win tournaments and win Grand Slams, especially. But I don't really focus on what people say about me. I just have to focus on what I can do, and I still do a lot of things,” she added. “You know, I'm on the phone at night talking to different people about designs within Aneres, and then I wake up, and I have a match. It can be done. You just have to be able to do it. Not everyone can do it.”

The 2008 US Open was just her 11th tournament of the year but her fourth title, adding to the ones she won at Bangalore, Miami and Charleston. She also has a 43-6 record this year.

Serena reached the quarterfinals of the Australian Open (losing to Jankovic) and after a disappointing third-round loss at Roland Garros, reached the Wimbledon final, losing to Venus. She then battled through a knee injury during the summer that forced her to withdraw from the Olympus US Open Series event in Los Angeles.

And her season is not over. Besides working on new designs for Aneres, she plans to play a few tournaments in Europe this fall. And nine Grand Slams are not enough.

“I want to get double digits,” she said. “I like that I'm at nine because I'm pushing for 10, and I feel like I can do it. I obviously play well all the time in Australia, so that's coming up soon. I have to win another French Open, and I love Wimbledon. I definitely have the game to do it. I love winning Grand Slams, so I look forward to it.”

But right now Serena is savoring this title and seeing all of her hard work come to fruition. What is the best way she would describe her time in New York?