WIMBLEDON, England -- The game breaks you open. It's easy to miss that at first, what with the posh roots, no central authority and its premiere showcase emitting the most twittish of auras; on its face the tennis world seems a milieu that any cocky, athletic type could navigate untouched. New stars arrive each year, armed with agents to hide their warts and coaches to minimize their flaws. They don't know: every backhand, every traveled mile, every pulled muscle is a tap on the protective shell.
Then one day -- just give it time -- comes a loss or win, a bad call or good cause, that provides the shattering blow. And there the player will stand, revealed at last.
It happened with Roger Federer, crying in Melbourne in 2009, and with Rafael Nadal, trying to console him. It happened with Arthur Ashe, Jana Novotna, Jeff Tarango, Jimmy Connors, Andre Agassi in Paris in '99 and Monica Seles in '95: The game broke them all open, showed their care or craziness, and on a steel-gray afternoon in England Saturday it broke perhaps the toughest nut of all.
Did you see Serena Williams on Centre Court? The last few times she stood this close to a championship moment, she was bullying or blustering her way out of contention in Flushing Meadow. They were ugly scenes, her last two appearances at the U.S. Open, and seemed -- in a way that her icy sweetness in 13 years of press conferences never could -- to define her. She was, we thought, all about rage: To hit, to win, to dominate, to get her way and damn the consequences. It wasn't until Saturday that it became clear we had only seen half the picture.
Did you see Serena after beating Agnieszka Radwanska, 6-1, 5-7, 6-2, to win her fifth Wimbledon title -- and 14th major overall? At times for good reason, the entire Williams family has been as insular and opaque a construct as tennis has ever seen. But that, too, cracked open Saturday as Serena, at 30 the oldest Wimbledon champion since 33-year old Martina Navratilova in 1990, stood crying, golden dish in hand, and revealed the half made up of fear and love.
"I never dreamed of being here again, being so down, so just never give up," Serena said, her words ringing across Center Court. She turned to her entourage in the player's box, thanked them over and over, so much so that what's usually a rote exercise took on rare power.
"Everybody over there, thank you, thank you thank you ... thank you from the bottom of my heart...," Serena said, and then, a minute in, her voice broke and she was sobbing, talking about her personal assistant, Val Vogt, and trainer, Esther Lee, whom Williams is sure saved her life. The two women slept on chairs and cots with her in a Los Angeles hospital room until they were sure she was out of danger.
"I could never have done this without you, Esther, and Val," she said, "when you were with me in the hospital, so thank you so much..."
By then, nearly everybody in the box was losing it: her sisters Venus, who last fall was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease she'll struggle with the rest of her life, and Isha; her agent Jill Smoller, who had stayed in the hospital room, too; the son of her sister Yetunde, murdered in 2003; Lee and Vogt and her father and mother and coaches and friends.
"Not everybody," said her dry-eyed mother, Oracene, after.
"Yeah, not my mom," said Isha, smiling. "You mean, Miss I-Have-It-Together?"
It has been two years since Williams won her last Grand Slam title at 2010 Wimbledon, and the years since have been a medical nightmare. First came the infamous broken glass on her sandaled feet in July, 2010, and two ensuing surgeries. Then, in mid-February 2011, Williams began having trouble breathing as she climbed stairs at her home in Los Angeles. Lee insisted she go to the hospital. Serena refused.
"I didn't want to go," she said. "I didn't want to go and she told me, 'You've got to go.' That was the beginning of a lot of stuff that was bad but that ended up good for me. Obviously I was really thankful; I've thanked her so many times for that. Because it literally could've been life-changing, hadn't she forced me."
It was anyway. Williams was diagnosed with a pulmonary embolism, which often shows no symptoms until someone drops dead. She tried to keep the news from her mother until she was out of danger. "She didn't tell me, and I was mad. I was really pretty upset," Oracene said. "Because what if something had really happened? I had already lost one kid. She really pissed me off when that happened."
Williams went home after five days at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, and began taking injections of blood-thinners as part of her treatment. Soon after, she developed a hematoma on her abdomen that grew to the size of a grapefruit, and had a procedure to drain it; sitting in her gut, for the next three weeks, was a drain apparatus in her navel. Serena called the drain, "Grover".
"So gross," she said. "Oh, I hated Grover.
"I didn't think I'd play tennis again. I just wanted to make it out of the hospital. I wasn't even thinking about tennis; I was thinking about family and thinking about just making it out of that moment. That's when you realize you have perspectives about life and your career."
When Richard, in Florida, heard the news, he drove with his wife to California, "and the whole time I'm thinking, 'What am I going to say?'" Richard said. "Because I'm not good at helping no one who's down and out, or sick or things like that. So I didn't say nothing to her. What I did was went and got some paint, to start painting the fence and the gate. My wife and I started painting and Serena came out there and started painting and once she did that I think she got it better."
Physically, Serena healed, and returned to pro tennis in June 2011. Her family seemed more subdued then, her father less feisty and confrontational than he had been when the sisters first surfaced on tour. "The tennis part don't mean nothing to me -- nothing at all," Richard said. "I'm just happy she's alive. She was facing death over there, so the tennis part, her winning, it's very rare I clap now. I'm just happy to have her."
But it has been a rollercoaster of a ride, with big sets followed by bad ones, big wins followed by stunning losses -- and none more so than Williams's first round loss at the French Open in May. "She had a woe-is-me attitude," Isha said, and even up to last week was still bringing up the broken glass episode and wondering: Why me? Finally Isha told her: Put that behind you.
"I realized it's time to let that go now and realize that I didn't do anything wrong," Williams said. "Things happen to everybody every day who did absolutely nothing wrong and I'm no different. I'm human, and that type of stuff happens. It's time I move on from it."
At the same time, she had already taken steps to sharpen her game, opting, after the loss at Roland Garros, to work at Patrick Mouratoglou's tennis academy for eight days instead of flying immediately home.
"People were always talking to her about it, but she was not talking about it at all," Mouratoglou said of the French Open loss. "It hurt her, of course, because she wanted to win. She felt she did everything to win, she felt she was ready to win and she didn't. But the champions, when they get hurt then they react. I think the best reaction is to win the Grand Slam that comes right after."
The final was a microcosm of her fortnight, her year, and her career: Williams dominated Radwanska in the first set, got tight and tentative in the second, and bailed herself out in the end with her serve and one sublime shot. Radwanska, with her flowing throwback of a game, had induced error after error from Williams in the second, and rode a fraying serve to a 2-1 lead in the third. Then Serena unloaded: four straight aces, the best delivery in women's history popping by again and again, untouched.
"She made it more difficult than it should've been," said Martina Hingis, one of Serena's great rivals from a decade ago, "but the way she came out in the third set was the Serena I know, I knew, I had to face."
Williams then broke Radwanska and held to go up, 4-2, and then went for, well, broke. With Radwanska serving at break point, Williams finished off a five-stroke baseline rally with a perfectly disguised, forehand drop shot that, as it floated gently over the net, took Radwanska and 14,979 other spectators by surprise. "I had no idea that was coming: that was amazing," said Lindsay Davenport, one of Serena's other retired rivals. "The match was over."
In essence. Williams actually threw up her hands in victory then, howling at her box. And then, insurance break in hand, she cruised through the final service game, tossing in her 17th ace, winning at 15, completing the unlikeliest Williams' comeback story yet. "Yes it is," says Richard. "Because she rose from the dead and came back."
When Serena's final winner landed, she turned again to her box, fell on her back and lay on the grass with her hands over her eyes. Then she got up, walked to the stands. Her father pulled her over a wall, and she hugged him first and last, in between grabbing her mom, Isha, Venus and anyone else in vicinity, holding on tight.
In a few hours, she and Venus, the comeback kids, would team up to win the doubles title, too. They giggled and joked together after, like always. But it's different now: Serena's the one with twice as many Grand Slam singles titles, Serena's the one worried about Venus' well-being, Serena's the one who blazed the path back that her older sister is trying to follow.
"I want to try to do what she's done," Venus said as Serena's eyes shined, the game breaking them both open just a little bit more.