Serena Williams celebrates her win against Agnieszka Radwanska in the ladies' singles final.
© Clive Rose/Getty Images
By Matt Cronin, special to USTA.com
WIMBLEDON, England -- Back in the early spring of 2011, when she couldn’t get off the couch for two days because she was still feeling ill after suffering pulmonary embolism, Serena Williams couldn’t imagine that she could be a Grand Slam champion again.
She had a tube in her stomach, she felt nauseous, her lungs didn’t feel clear, and then she looked down at her feet and remembered her two foot surgeries. But with more than a little help from her family and friends, her spirits rose, and she went back to work.
"I didn't just stay there," Serena said of her miserable day on the couch. "I got up. That's what you got to do sometimes."
Nearly a year and a half later, Williams is back in the Grand Slam winner’s circle, as she grabbed her fifth Wimbledon and 14th Grand Slam title with a stirring 6-1, 5-7, 6-2 victory over world No. 2 Agnieszka Radwanska.
Her title run had little resemblance to the Serena Williams of Wimbledon 2010, who had no doubts about her ability to quickly shut the door on any and all foes and won the tournament without dropping a set.
Now, post her foot surgeries, blood clot and subsequent pulmonary embolism, the Serena of 2012 has been riddled with doubts, and while she has played some standout yellowball since she returned to the tour in June 2011, she has underachieved at the Slams, unable to grab another title and even suffering a shocking first-round loss to Virginie Razzano at Roland Garros last month. That one hurt.
"It was devastating to her," said her mother, Oracene Price.
Her sister Isha added, "That was really hard. I couldn't leave Paris, I couldn't leave her. She was like tripping. When you know what you are capable of and there's nothing she could do, sitting out the entire tournament was really tough."
At this Wimbledon, she was a lot like the London weather: occasionally bright and sunny, sometimes gloomy and rainy, and many times full of tempestuous storms blowing in off the North Sea.
She struggled through part of her first five matches, needing three long sets to dispatch Zheng Jie and Yaroslava Shvedova. She looked nervous and outside of her booming serve, she wasn't consistent off the ground or in her return games. But then she knew if she didn’t step up against defending champion Petra Kvitova in the quarterfinals, she would be out. Down went the Czech, followed by [now No. 1 again] Victoria Azarenka in the semis. It was in those two matches against the two young Grand Slam champions that she began to look calm and in control again. It was then that the world got a glimpse of the best server in WTA history.
Oracene thought she turned the corner against Azarenka. Isha says it was against the left-handed Kvitova.
"She was striking the ball really well. She wasn't as concerned about Azarenka because she has a similar style and she knew what she had to do out there to win," she said. "Kvitova is a tougher opponent in a lot of ways because her game is more strategy orientated and it's not just strike, strike, strike. When she got that match, it was like she exhaled and said, 'OK. I'm good.'"
But not all was good against Radwanska. Serena started fast, and the Pole just could not seem to get her quick feet moving or find the range in her cagey counterpuncher’s game. It looked like Serena was well on her way to a romp in the second set, up 4-2, but then she began to over-think her mistakes, and after missing a forehand down-the-line approach shot to be broken back to 4-4, she fell apart. An enthusiastic Radwanska won the set when Serena pushed an easy backhand into the net, and thoughts of how Williams faded late in the second set of her 2011 US Open final loss to Samantha Stosur permeated Centre Court.
Serena admitted that maybe she wanted the title so badly that she grew nervous.
"She got a little ahead of herself in the second set and started overplaying, and then she got tight and started missing," Isha said. "She had to take a breather. She took her notes out, got herself back in the right frame of mind, and came out and played a more strategic game and with less power. Because Radwanska moves well, she's going to get everything back. Her serve is decent. When you have someone who has that kind of touch, it's a very different game."
Serena did begin to change things up from the baseline and stopped trying to go for outright winners early in rallies. But it’s when she decided to bring out the hammer that she put her stamp back in the match, holding to 3-2 with four straight aces.
"That's my latest and greatest thing to do, is hitting four aces in a game," Serena joked. It's awesome." So awesome, that she ended the tournament with a Wimbledon record 102 aces.
From then on, it was just a matter of holding on three more times, but she didn’t have to, as she broke Radwanska to 5-2 with a sweet forehand drop shot. She then closed it out with an untouchable backhand. She fell to her back in joy, got up, climbed into the Friends Box and hugged a host of family and friends: Oracene, Isha, her sister Venus, her media rep, Val Vogt, her agent, Jill Smoller, and her trainer Esther Lee, who was the one who told her that she had to go to the hospital when the blood clot in her foot was threatening her life.
"From the day I got to the hospital until the day I left, they never left the room," she said. "Like they slept there. And they didn't have to do that. They didn't owe me that. That meant a lot to me. Even though I was trying to keep the spirits up, everyone was making jokes, it's hard to find people in your life that sleep there every night. Those are memories that I'd rather not endure, but if you have to, it's unbelievable to have those people by your side."
The Williams camp wept tears of delight. Oracene joked that if Serena hadn't won the match, "I think we would have to take her and put her in an institution."
Later, with a small group of American reporters, Serena talked about how long it took her to put the horrible scene of having glasses dropped on her feet at a Munich restaurant just after she won 2010 Wimbledon, which took her off the tour for 11 months. Believe it or not, she just got it out of her mind last week.
"I was talking to Isha the other day and started getting teary eyed because I wasn’t doing anything," she said. "I was just leaving, and I wasn’t acting in any way. She told me, 'You have to let that go.' Maybe something saved me from an accident, something could have been worse. At that point, which was less than a week ago, I realized it was time I let that go. I realized I didn’t do anything wrong and things happen to everybody every day to people who didn’t do anything wrong. I’m not different. I’m human, and it’s time I move on."
On Monday, provided that she and Venus’ Wimbledon doubles final is finished, Serena will head back across the Atlantic for the start of the Emirates Airline US Open Series at the Bank of the West Classic at Stanford, where she is the defending champion. Even at 30 years old, she's feeling better than she ever has and believes she has more Grand Slam titles in her. So does U.S. Fed Cup and Olympic Captain Mary Joe Fernandez, who called the title Serena’s most special one. Serena, by the way, couldn’t disagree.
"If she stays healthy, she’s the best," Fernandez said. "She has so many weapons, between her movement and her serves and her returns. It’s hard to see her not winning another big one."