WIMBLEDON, England -- Serena Williams has made it to the money end of another Grand Slam event, so we know what to expect. She's undeniably great, so she will win -- unless she doesn't. She's 30 now, with some of the harsh edges softened by age and a harrowing health scare -- until, shockingly, they aren't. She's the riveting star who lends the women's game its one steady force -- until the moment when she loses her temper, or interest or drive or whatever it is that keeps her coming back, then Poof! She'll be gone, while the tour wonders again what just happened.
A month ago, Virginia Wade dubbed Andy Murray "a drama queen" -- which drew blood but made little sense if you consider the competition. No athlete alive can match Williams' package of drive, entitlement, histrionics, intrigue and personal narrative; aside from her 13 major titles, her career includes a triumphant rivalry with her older sister and best friend, divorce between her parents/coaches, the murder of another sister, and her own near-death experience in 2011 after a pulmonary embolism. Oh, yes, there were also those egregious meltdowns at her last two U.S. Opens -- spasms of bullying self-destruction more revealing than any championship run.
Yet through it all, there has been one constant in Williams's life -- a serve so clean, direct and finely deployed that it feels sometimes like a kinetic contradiction to all we're sure we know. Victoria Azarenka saw it up close Thursday afternoon: Williams at the baseline, left arm rising, a nightmare about to begin. She bent her knees, the ball floated, then down like a greased piston her arm dropped. A record 24 times, she aced Azarenka en route to a 6-3, 7-6 (8-6) win in the 2012 Wimbledon semifinal, her serve bailing her out whenever shaky nerves -- and Azaranka's fortitude -- nearly pushed matters to a third set.
"The serve is just that one difference that brings her to a higher level," Azarenka said after. "She serves 200 (kph); that already makes it difficult; I don't see anybody else serving like this on the tour. And you know, she places well. I don't know how many (serves on the) lines I got today."
The same helpless note was struck after Williams faced just one break point in beating defending champ Petra Kvitova in the quarterfinals, buried Yaroslava Shvedova with timely aces and service winners in the fourth-round, and set a now-broken Wimbledon record of 23 aces against Jie Zheng in the third. "This is the difference: She put herself together and served three aces in one game," Shvedova said. "I served two double-faults." Asked to describe her masterstroke, Williams needed only one word.
"Mean," she said.
Better to call it the still point of her chaotically spinning world. After all, Williams hardly carved today's weapon out of years of tape study, drills and tinkering; it has been her trusty companion almost forever. "I don't know how it got better," Serena said. "It's not like I go home and I work on baskets and baskets of serves. Maybe it's a natural shot for me."
With, perhaps, one parental nudge. Her father, Richard Williams, says that he had his very young daughters, "throwing rocks, baseballs, footballs. Most parents would buy their child a doll: I was teaching them to throw. That's why boys throw better than girls. And the better you throw the better you serve."
But overall, said Serena's mother, Oracene Price, "it was a natural thing for her. She never thought about it too much." Along with Florida tennis coach Rick Macci, Richard laid down a tennis foundation for both girls, and he couldn't resist tinkering with Venus's serve. But Serena's? "He didn't touch," Oracene said. "No, she was usually on my court."
The result is, by universal acclaim, the greatest serve in the history of the women's game. "It's flawless, it's very clean and she's strong," says Martina Navratilova. "It's the best serve ever, no doubt about it." Asked to name history's No. 2, Navratilova grins.
"I would think me," she said. "But Serena's bigger, she's stronger, and with a bigger racket. My motion was pretty flawless, too, but hers is bigger."
And yet, even with all that, even with a 2-0 career record against fellow finalist Agnieszka Radwanska, Saturday's final is hardly a lock. Since her return from the embolism in mid-2011, Williams has proved herself vulnerable just when she seems most formidable. The scare has stayed with her, physically and otherwise; she has had to inject herself with blood thinners when flying, or when her constant readings demand it.
"Everything is meaningful for her now, in every different way," said Jill Smoller, Serena's agent. "She just appreciates all the different chances and opportunities. I don't think she takes anything for granted. I don't think she ever did; she's overcome so much. But this is, once again, from zero: She started from zero -- eight months immobile. A pulmonary embolism: I know what I would be thinking: Am I going to have a heart attack? That's a different kind of thing to overcome."
Williams carried all that with her when she rolled during the 2011 hardcourt season, and beat both Azarenka and No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki en route to what seemed a U.S. Open coronation against Sam Stosur. But then she was called for obstruction in the final after screaming during a stroke, fell apart and lost in straight sets. This year, Serena won two clay tournaments, took down rivals like Azarenka and Maria Sharapova, and was favored to win her second French Open title. Instead, she lost in the first round of a Grand Slam for the first time in her career.
Those experiences seem to have left her chastened; if Williams is feeling cocky here in England, she's not saying. "If anything it helped me," she said of the setbacks in New York and Paris. "It helped me realize you can't be perfect; you can't win 'em all; you can go and definitely try. That's all I'm doing, is just trying."
There are moments on court, of course, where you can see the effort: Williams, frizzed hair spraying like a dandelion, lunging beyond the doubles alley for a killer backhand, screaming "Come on!" -- looking for all the swirl and noise like tennis' Tina Turner stomping through "Proud Mary". That's her sound and fury mode, the one that Richard warned us all about years ago, when Irina Spirlea bumped Venus on a crossover at the '97 U.S. Open. If it had been Serena there, he said, Spirlea would've been on the ground.
But that's not Serena at her best. No, that comes in her own enforced calm, like when she lets a windblown toss drop on her racket and for a few seconds watches it sit there, the ball, and it's as if the two are communing. It comes at moments like Thursday's second set, when she was down 5-6 and serving to force a tiebreak. First there was a service-winner wide, 110 miles per hour, and then her 19th ace of the day, 103 mph down the T: 30-0. It all seemed so easy.
"I'm so happy to be playing," Serena said after. "I'm so happy to be on the court. I feel like this is where I belong. I mean, maybe I don't belong in a relationship; maybe I don't belong somewhere else. But I know for a fact I do belong on this tennis court."
Especially at the baseline. The place was silent then, and the celebrity pals in the box, the Twitter followers, the pain and mistakes and funny boasts -- that whole Williams carnival -- was gone. The ball went up, and she was all fluidity and smarts, placing it where Azarenka had no chance. Bang: Ace No. 20, 115 mph: 40-0. It's like jazz, that serve, not Tina: It's swing, it's Ella Fitzgerald's voice -- uncluttered and cool and perfect.
"It means the world to her," Richard says of his daughter, the idea of her winning Wimbledon this year. "This is the most important tournament in the world for her to win -- not because it's Wimbledon. Because she was on the threshold of not ever playing again."
Now came another bomb to get to the tiebreaker, now two more, and a rally won, a matched point lost. Everyone at Centre Court knew what was coming. Azarenka netted a backhand, and it was match point again, and this time Serena didn't miss. The ball flew down the T, untouched. Her scream followed behind it, skipping off the grass.