How does it feel for an athlete to not only dominate a sport at an age when most either retire or linger on the periphery, but be on the verge of feats traditionally reserved for the young? Only Serena Williams can tell us.
The 33-year-old is just three months away from her 34th birthday, yet she will continue to be the overwhelming favorite in every single match she plays for the foreseeable future. Why? Well, for starters, Serena is an astonishing 32-1 in 2015. That record includes her 19th Grand Slam singles title at the Australian Open in January, and now her 20th, won Saturday at the French Open, where she defeated a game Lucie Safarova 6-3, 6-7 (2), 6-2.
Slam number 20 didn’t come easy, and that’s not even mentioning the flu she battled during the last few matches, or the fact that, that in the final, she had to overcome a deadly case of – well, she said it herself:
Serena Williams to Fabrice Santoro: “I choked.”
— Courtney Nguyen (@FortyDeuceTwits) June 6, 2015
Serena is referring to the fact that she lost a two-break lead in the second set, failed to serve out the match at 6-5 in that stanza and was down 0-2 in the third. This third Roland Garros title was a monumental struggle, both physically and mentally, which likely will make the celebration all the sweeter (provided Serena is feeling better, of course).
With her triumph over Safarova, Serena became just the second woman in the Open Era to reach the 20 Slam title count, the other being Steffi Graf. Speaking of the legendary German, Serena is now just two titles away from matching her total Slam count, which has long been the gold standard not only in women’s tennis, but the sport in general.
What is even more remarkable is that Serena is now only one French Open title away from matching one of the most incredible Graf feats: winning every Major at least four times, a.k.a. the Grand Slam of Career Grand Slams. When Steffi sealed that mark at the 1999 French Open, it really felt like one of those landmarks that could never be touched. Serena would win her first French Open just three years after that, but it would take her 11 long years before she reached the title match in Paris again. Clay has long been recognized as Serena’s weakest surface, yet here she is, riding an unbelievable, Nadal-esque 69-4 mark on the crushed stuff since she turned 30 in 2011. Like many of Serena’s accomplishments, you can only smile and shake your head in disbelief.
For years the narrative about Williams was stained by hypotheticals: What if she had been just a little luckier with injuries? What if she had possessed Steffi Graf’s laser focus and maniacally chased every Slam when her body was in its prime? In 2006, when Serena played all of 16 matches for the year, former great Chris Evert was so compelled by Serena’s perceived lack of interest to chase glory at every turn that she wrote this infamous open letter. The consensus among many in the tennis world was that Serena would never reach the kind of heights her once-in-a-solar-lifespan talents merited. By age 27, her Slam count was still in single digits. Serena didn’t win a single Major in the year she turned 30, and at that point she was still nine Slams behind Graf.
However, given where Serena is now, those “what ifs” can be countered with questions from the present: Would Serena be as fresh and hungry today if she had run herself into the ground in her twenties? Would her desire burn as brightly at age 33? How many miles would she have left had she played grueling schedules early on? Who knows. But what we should always remember that Steffi Graf retired from tennis not long after turning 30. The competitive flame can only burn that brightly for so long.
The point is, Serena managed to reach the destination many foresaw, even if her route was highly unconventional. She’s entered a new prime, at an age when tennis players usually begin looking for post-career employment doing something other than hitting the yellow ball. Serena Williams will beat the mark for oldest woman to win a Slam should she take home any other Major from here on out. But what is crazy is that if she manages to win Wimbledon in five weeks, she also complete a second Serena Slam (winning all four Majors consecutively, though not within the same calendar year).
The first Serena Slam started at the French Open in 2002, culminating at the Australian Open in 2003. Those four Major titles brought Serena to a total of five, and she was only 21 years old when she completed the outrageous feat. Accomplishments like that had a lot to do with the expectations heaped upon her. To see Serena today, with 20 Slam titles to her name, feels appropriate, something like Manifest Destiny. The Serena résumé finally matches the Serena eye-test.
The trophy cabinet matches the talent, and it doesn’t feel like the silverware haul is stopping anytime soon. Heck, not even flu can stop Serena Williams.