Serena at 20

Serena Williams, the younger of the two tennis-playing Williams sisters, has been at it since 1999. 
When I was just about old enough to begin understanding the intricacies and trends of the WTA and ATP tours, Steffi Graff wasn’t the dominant force. Maybe she was, but a few other younger players were capturing and shaping my imagination. 
It was Lindsay Davenport, who for the shortest time, burst onto the world scene in 1998, and defeated heir apparent Hingis in the US Open Final, before snatching the throne away from Graff at Wimbledon 1999. 
In between, there was, of course, the looming threat of a new era of US domination, fore-fronted by the muscular Venus Williams. Williams went on to make 2000 and 2001 her years. 
She ended Davenport’s short time in the sun, before she became a victim to the most primal form of sibling rivalry. 
 
Serena Williams won her first Grand Slam title, the US Open, in 1999. She defeated perennial finalist Martina Hingis, who should have become the greatest female tennis player of all time in the years to come. That we now speak of Serena in the same vein, with a gasp of resignation as well as admiration when she takes the court, is poetic justice to that first match-up between the two. 
She was a brash, raw, energetic teenager who piped her older, more promising sister to the top in 1999. 
She then took a while to sustain that level of play, winning her next major much later in 2002, much after Venus had left her stamp on the tour—surprisingly for an American, it was a French Open title. 
She went on the rampage soon after, defeating and shattering the heart of sister Venus Williams in five consecutive major finals. 
 
In 2002, she won the French, Wimbledon and US Open, before winning the Australian Open in 2003. She held all four titles when she entered the 2003 French Open, before winning Wimbledon again that year. By now, Venus had long succumbed to the fact that her destiny was to be cruelly interrupted by her own younger, stronger and more dynamic sister. 
 
You’d think that when a Singles tennis player reaches 20 Grand Slam titles, it’s a career of absolute and utter greatness; that there should be no equal. 
But such has been Serena’s style, dominance and stranglehold over the women’s game, and such has been her lapses in temperament and motivation, that many suggest she should have won far more. 
 
The fact that she won ONLY 15 Grand slam titles after 2003 (in 13 years) only reiterates this absurd argument. 
In fact, 7 of these 15 titles have come since 2012 when she touched the ripe old tennis age of 30—and went neck-to-neck with contemporary male great Federer till they were on 16 titles. 
Despite her obvious status as the best female player of a generation, and possibly of many generations, Williams won only one Slam title in 2014. This was a time I could swear that whenever I switched on the television set to watch a tennis game, Serena was destroying opponents without breaking a sweat. Yet, that single US Open title came in a year she reached the final stages of all four Slams. 
 
Serena has now reached a stage, at age 33, where, if she wants to win, nothing and nobody can stop her. 
She will find a way, no matter what the scoreline, no matter what flu or family or relationship problems face her. The way she won the 2015 French Open, after being down a set and break almost every match after the third round, only confirms that Serena’s greatest opponent is and always has been Serena Williams. Every tournament she enters has her name on the trophy, unless she decides otherwise; this could be because of a bad meal, a cranky phone call, a family crisis or a fight with her coach/boyfriend. 
 
Her bad days are so obvious on court, and the opponent never really gets credit for defeating her. It’s always Serena who loses the plot, and it’s always Serena who stages a comeback—like she did against Safarova in the final. She was 6-1 and 4-1 up, threw it all away, forgot how to play tennis for 30 minutes, and then hit back after being 0-2 down in the decider. Who does that, and how does one find the mental strength and belief to do that? It can only happen if you know that you’re better than the world, and if you don’t really consider anybody a worthy opponent. 
 
Williams has for long won tournaments for fun. In 2014, she won almost everything she entered, and the few matches she lost were unfortunately Grand Slam matches where she just lost focus. 
The others have continuously gotten better over time—the likes of Sharapova and other youngsters—but Williams’ level is such that no matter how much the other player improves, she always has another gear. It’s just up to her, if she actually wants to go through the extra hell, and use that gear. Lately, she has begun to enter that ‘cheat mode’ gear more often, where nothing will phase her if she absolutely wants to win the thing. 
 
Because she has no real competition, she—like many dark superheroes—creates her own hell in order to test her own resolve. Nobody else is responsible for that. Like vigilantes desperate to prove to themselves that a sport/city needs them, she commits the crime and then solves it too. It makes for good Serena v/s Serena competitions, and watching them is like watching an actor playing several roles in the same film. 
 
Players like Sharapova, Davenport, Henin, Clijsters, Hingis, Venus and many more have come, won a few and stayed or gone. 
Serena has been constantly around, either introspecting or actually winning. She can never be written off, no matter how bad her form is, no matter what gravity-defying outfits she wears and more terrifyingly, no matter how old she is. 
 
She will be 35 soon, and still be winning titles on a whim. Does she want to? Only time will tell. 
 
For now, she is just two away from Graff’s 22 titles—a record that many thought nobody would break. It’s within Serena’s grasp now, this very year if she wants it. Then, she can go on and reach 30. Just for fun. 

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