In late May, with the 2012 season half over, Serena Williams looked to be a force in retreat. She hadn't won a Grand Slam title in two years. She had just lost in the first round -- for the first time at any major -- of the French Open. She was good, it seemed, for a week of great play but not two. And real life kept sending signals: Big sister Venus struggling to manage an chronic illness, the fresh scars from Serena's own health scares, the fact that soon she would be 31. You could see trend lines firming, the slow fade picking up speed...
Please. It was almost predictable what happened next. Williams dug in her heels in Paris, began listening to a new voice -- French coach Patrick Mouratoglou -- and working furiously. She won Wimbledon in July, called it "the beginning of a something great," -- and then backed up her words with astonishing brio.
Two weeks later, Williams went back to London and won the 2012 Olympic gold medal in singles to become only the second player ever to compile a career Golden Grand Slam. Then she hit New York, carving her way through the U.S. Open draw and prevailing in the best women's final seen in Flushing Meadow in nearly two decades. She went on, in fact, to lose only one match after Paris, crushing No. 1 Victoria Azarenka four times and her only rival for starpower, Maria Sharapova, twice. In all, Williams conjured up the most surprisingly dominant performance, man or woman, of 2012, providing backbone for the best season of women's tennis in years and forestalling the American game's seemingly inevitable slide into oblivion.
That litany alone, of course, is enough to justify naming her the 2012 Sportswoman of the Year. Williams, though, is this writer's pick as much because in an era of endlessly revealed misdeed and shame, in this age of Barry and Tiger and Lance -- oh, my! -- she presented a road map for moving forward after an ugly binge of self-destruction. Yes, there'll be plenty who will never forgive Serena her profane, threatening harangue at a lineswoman in her 2009 U.S. Open semi-final or the slightly less menacing meltdown in the 2011 Open final. But throughout her run one of sport's hardest cases -- and she'll go to her grave convinced both calls against her were wrong -- didn't stonewall on "the past" or deny that she'd done wrong, too. No, Williams poked fun at those volcanic overreactions, kept her worst impulses in check and, at a key moment of truth, proved capable of actually learning from her mistakes.
It wasn't easy. Two days before she had spoken of how snake-bit she felt at Flushing Meadow, how nervous she was that something would go wrong again, how she kept telling herself as the Open approached: Serena, don't go crazy this year. Wimbledon had been her emotional breakthrough, the sure sign that she had finally left the medical problems of 2010 and early 2011 -- the sliced-up feet, the pulmonary embolism that left her sure she'd cheated death, the bulbous hematoma on her abdomen -- behind. But Williams also knew that her comeback would never be complete until she won again in New York, and calmly.
So came the test, early in the second set of her 2012 U.S. Open final against Azarenka, after Williams had seemingly taken command. With Serena serving at 6-2, 0-2, 40-0, a linesman called her for a foot-fault from the exact same spot as the official in '09. She gave the man a double-take, lost the next two points, then drilled a 102 m.p.h. ace down the T, glaring at him twice more as she passed to her chair. "You could see she was kind of mad at the guy," said her mother, Oracene Price, in the understatement of the year. But Williams didn't say a word.
It was fascinating to watch, of course, because the moment -- the need to control her reaction -- took her to uncharted territory. Williams has never been one to rein herself in; the unfamiliar strain left her rattled. And so that legendary serve lost its sting; her laser-focused mind, less dependable all season anyway, lost focus; her confidence frayed and with it went the next three games, the set, nearly the whole match. In the third, Azarenka stepped on her air hose and Serena gasped: At 3-5, 30-all she was two points from losing the Open again. And still she didn't rant. Then and there, in fact, Williams began composing her concession speech.
But the crisis dissolved when Azarenka netted a key forehand, then visibly buckled on her serve; suddenly Serena saw a bit of daylight. The wrestling match with herself, her temper, had kept her out of trouble long enough to let the other woman meltdown in Arthur Ashe Stadium for once. It was, really, the most mature performance we've ever seen from little sister. And that's because, in one sense, she had become big sister.
All their lives, Serena ("a little bit of a baby," older sister Isha said) had been indulged and protected by Venus, blissfully let off the hook of any sibling rivalry by her sister's generous spirit. "I've always wanted everything that Venus has had," Serena said on Center Court after winning Wimbledon, her 15th major title to Venus' seven. "So thank you, Venus, I had to copy you again so... sorry..." Venus only smiled at that, too. Lesser people would've been dying inside.
By then, too, the 32-year old Venus was ten months into the strange final push of her own career, struggling daily to compete while dealing with the fatigue-inducing autoimmune disease, Sjogren's syndrome. She admitted in London that she was using Serena now as inspiration, and Serena took the role-reversal as a responsibility. "She's going through a tough time every day and I never know what day is good for her or how she feels," Serena said. "So it's really encouraging for me to stay with her or be around her and really appreciate: Well, gosh, I'm really healthy. I can do this for both of us."
Venus has tunneled back from No. 103 in singles a year ago to her current No. 24. Yet it's clear that her most satisfying triumphs were shared: A doubles title at Wimbledon, the sisters' first tournament in two years, followed by yet another doubles gold -- their third -- at the 2012 Olympics. A sense of perspective hangs over everything the Williams sisters do now. They know what they almost lost, and they know there isn't much time left.
"I do appreciate the wins more," Serena said in New York. "It's amazing. I just feel incredibly blessed and fortunate to have an opportunity to be here to do it again. To live, first of all, and to play on a professional level."
This was just before the Open final that sealed the golden year for her, the one that turned the conversation on Serena Williams in a whole new direction. Once considered too distractible to put up record-breaking numbers, she's now just three major wins from matching Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova on the all-time list; suddenly, even Steffi Graf's 22 singles titles are a possible target. Fade away? Williams insists that she's only going forward now.
"I'm happy," she said. "I'm happy in my current situation. Obviously I want to win tomorrow, I want to win Australia, I want to win the French -- I want to win every round I play. Life has never been always been about tennis for me, but I'm really content and excited about my future.
"Me, Victoria and Maria are playing so consistent -- it's exciting. We want to do something like men's tennis is doing: Have all of us win Grand Slams all the time. Maria is so dedicated and Victoria hates to lose -- and me? I despise losing."
That, we've always known. It's the response to losing -- William's work, grace, and self-control -- that made this year special. If it seems odd for someone to get an award for simply, at last, growing up: Well, look around. These days it's actually a rare achievement.