US Open: Legal and Legendary—Serena Grabs Hold of the Elusive Number 18

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By Bill Simons

This cannot be.

Serena Williams, the most turbulent figure in tennis since a man named Johnny Mac, brought order back to the game.

In a tournament with wild bees and painful cramps, up and comers cramped the style of the Big Four. None of them—Federer, Djokovic, Nadal or Murray—made it to the men’s final. The sky was falling.

And woman’s tennis was even more chaotic. Aussie Open champ Li Na didn’t show up. French queen Maria Sharapova went down to a final-bound Caroline Wozniacki. Wimbledon wonder Petra Kvitova fell to the little-known qualifier Aleksandra Krunic.

Everybody lost.

Well, at least it seemed that way. Eight of the top ten seeds had fallen before the quarterfinals.

All the while, who was the pillar of both patriotism and stability? Serena, our Serena, the diva whose middle-name should have been Stormy.

Serena, who’s yelled obscenities at a US Open linesperson, stepped on glass in a Munich bar, and fought for her life in a LA hospital. Serena, who was booed as a kid in Indian Wells, and who yelled out “C’mon!” at an inopportune moment to derail a critical comeback in the 2011 US Open final. Serena, who was cheated on line calls here in New York, a blunder which led to USTA apologies and the establishment of Hawk-Eye.

Put it this way: If Federer is serenity incarnate, Serena is anything but serene.

But, once again, while American tennis faltered badly, Serena alone held our banner high. Goodness, she was the sole American to reach the second week in singles, and she zoomed to the finals with single-minded focus, as if she were a corporate VP reviewing a quarterly report.

Of course, the quarterly reports for Serena Inc. had been somewhat gloomy this year. Last year, she won Wimbledon and the US Open and still said it wasn’t that great a season. In 2014, Serena had collected enough titles to remain No. 1, but she hadn’t even reached the quarters of a Slam.

Yet here at the Open, sprinting to the finals, she didn’t drop a set, losing no more than three games in any of the 12 sets she collected.

So, reporters were left to ask her tangential questions. Did she feel more pressure trying to match icons Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova with 18 Slam wins? No, she quipped, 18 just means “legal and legendary.” Going into the final, the media wondered if it would be tough for Serena to play her gal-pal Caroline. No way, she said: “If I can play Venus, I can play anyone.”

Not surprisingly, in the final, Serena started slowly. She’s often broken from the gate as if she was under a cloud. And Sunshine—that would be Wozniacki—has a fine “defense is the best offense” game. Plus, the Dane of Polish descent with a Big Apple apartment who is still on the rebound from a certain Irish golfer, is the most popular darling to never win a Slam. “She’s not exactly boo-able,” observed Mary Carillo. “She reacts to everything with grace.”

But it’s hard to react to Serena’s imposing ferocity with grace. In fact, the woman whose ponytail got snared in her racket earlier in the tournament was soon caught in the torrent that is the Serena storm, a familiar force that has reigned for so long. Smooth, powerful bail-out serves; no-time-to-breathe returns; she-can’t-be-32 movement; and no-nonsense defense-to-offense—Serena was, well, Serena. Even let cords went her way. She won challenges. She hit a nifty two-handed volley winner and prevailed in a a captivating 26-stroke baseline rally.

But once again—oh no—we had a US Open final that was less than captivating. At times, fans were more enthralled with the A-list celebs in the stands—Robert Redford, Spike Lee, Gladys Knight, Billie Jean King, Andy Roddick, Debra Messing, and Judd Hirsch—than the battle on court. Serena, who has traveled so many tennis miles, ran the wannabe marathoner Wozniacki from corner to corner. Sadly, the Dane’s serve was not great, and her winners were as infrequent as the Scandinavian sun in January.

Wozniacki struggled mightily to hold even once before the close of the first set. Seventy-three mile-per-hour serves just don’t cut it against Williams. Never mind that Serena was broken three times. She broke back at will.

Afterward, Caro admitted she’d been nervous, adding that facing Serena isn’t much fun, and with the crowd “screaming so loud you can’t even hear what you are thinking … it is kind of overwhelming.” But, in fact, it was Williams who was overwhelming.

“She’s so strong,” noted Wozniacki. “She has a good serve and she puts pressure on you straightaway … I had a game plan in mind, but it was kind of difficult at the start. I tried to push her back, but that didn’t work … She really just stepped in and she was playing aggressive.”

So IT asked Caro whether Serena is a step above the others. “Her results and her career say it all: 18 Grand Slam titles. You don’t get that unless you’re exceptional … She is one of the greatest of all time. To have 18 Grand Slam titles, and still be the person she is, is really something very rare. I admire her both on and off the court. I definitely think when Serena is on her game there’s not much we can do.”

According to Wozniacki, it isn’t just talent: “She’s a hard worker. She works hard every day, just like us, but when she needs to, she can pull out that big serve. She has the power. She can push us back on the court and take the initiative. She definitely has the experience … because maybe back in the day she might not have made the right choices. Now she knows what she needs to do out there, and it makes it even harder to beat her.”

That Serena won her third straight US Open and sixth overall might open as many questions as it answers. Is she the best of all time? Can we dare to say she is, relatively speaking, greater than The Mighty Federer, who has “just” 17 Slams and can’t approach Serena’s record in doubles, the Olympics, and team competition? (Serena has won 22 women’s doubles titles, including 13 Slams; two mixed doubles Slams; one Olympic gold in singles and three in doubles; and a Fed Cup title.)

Yes, today was about numbers, heady numbers. But, too, it was about history and emotion. “It feels so good to have the support of the crowd and hear the roar,” Serena—whose signature tune at the Open this year was “Roar” by Katy Perry—told IT. “No other roar at any stadium is like the one at Arthur Ashe. It’s a great feeling. I think it’s my favorite feeling.”

After a moving victory speech, Serena talked about the importance of reaching 18. “I could never have imagined that I would be mentioned with Chris Evert or with Martina Navratilova, because I was just a kid with a dream and a racquet. Living in Compton, this never happened before … Who am I?”

Well, Serena, you are Serena—our Serena, our diva and darling, our champion: sometimes calm, often tumultuous and always compelling.