Serena knocking on history's door after fifth Wimbledon title
It was the perfect shot, rich in the element of surprise, and so contrary to the foundation of a great career. When Serena Williams looks back on her fifth Wimbledon title, a 6-1, 5-7, 6-2 victory over Agnieszka Radwanska, she may well rank a moment of pure finesse over all the aces and blistering groundstrokes.
Because it was just so cool.
Radwanska, fighting back to respectability in a match that had appeared hopelessly one-sided, seemed to be getting on Williams' nerves in a taut second set. Her vast repertoire in full flight, Radwanska had placed her game on an even keel with Serena's power, but now she was serving at 2-4 in the third set with a break point against her. It was a point she absolutely had to win.
A routine-looking rally ensued, and then it happened. From the baseline, without warning, Serena caressed a slicing forehand drop shot. Radwanska, normally a beacon of anticipation, didn't even move. The ball descended like a feather, just barely over the net. You'd have thought it was Martina Hingis or Hana Mandlikova, so beautiful was the disguise and the execution.
"Well, she's got good hands," Radwanska said later. "So she can do those kind of things. Of course, a surprise. She picked a great moment for that, for sure."
With the break in hand, Serena charged straight to the finish line. At 40-15, she laced a clean backhand winner down the line, completing her two-year comeback from the depths. She collapsed onto her back, covering her face with her hands, and after a warm meeting at the net with Radwanska, she bounded up into the stands to hug her parents, sisters and support group. It was a touching scene, perhaps the family's most gratifying moment over a career dating back to Venus' first professional match at the Oakland Coliseum Arena in 1994.
The symmetry is astounding: Serena and Venus each own five Wimbledon titles, more than Margaret Court or Chris Evert could accomplish over their storied careers, one short of Billie Jean King. More than any other tournament, Wimbledon was the sisters' dream as little kids, and now they own 10 of the last 13 women's singles titles.
It's Serena, though, that's making the grand assault on history. This was her 14th major, making it reasonable to consider she could match the 18 shared by Evert and Martina Navratilova, who sit four back from Steffi Graf's Open Era record of 22. It's the first Wimbledon title by an over-30 woman since Navratilova in 1990, and for Serena, who turns 31 in September, the age factor is paramount. As she has said all week, with heartfelt affirmation from her father, Richard, this title has a special place in her career. A little more than a year ago, she was hospitalized with a pulmonary embolism, a life-threatening proposition if not properly treated.
"It's been an unbelievable journey for me," she said. "Just from being that far down, the lowest of the lows, to come here and win today is just amazing. I still can't believe I was able to do this. It hasn't sunk in. But this is special. I couldn't ask for anything else."
It had been a gloomy, drizzly morning in the borough of Merton, but the match started on time without need for the Centre Court roof. As it should be. Wimbledon officials took some heat over their roof-related decisions during the fortnight, but their desire was always to keep this an outdoor event. Williams and Radwanska had to endure a half-hour rain delay after the first set, but there was never a question of turning this into an indoor final.
The bigger question, after that first set, was whether Radwanska even belonged on the same court with Williams. Racing to a 5-0 lead, Serena left her mark in each game: with aces, cross-court winners, penetrating service returns and another one of those deft forehand drop shots, closing out the third game.
Not particularly healthy to begin with, having battled a respiratory ailment for several days, Radwanska looked ghostly out there, as if Serena's raw power would literally make her disappear. She didn't have a single palpable weapon except her desire to keep fighting -- and for that, the Polish woman should be commended.
The first sign of a breakthrough came in the fourth game of the second set, when Radwanska snapped a running cross-court forehand winner at an impossible angle, the type of shot only magical hands can produce. As the set drew even, Serena seemed to pull back a bit, the sign of a player getting tight. We've seen plenty of this from the latter-day Serena, particularly as the French Open last month, and it was logical to recall how many times, in comeback mode, she turned apparent victory into a shambles.
"I got too anxious out there, and I shouldn't have," she said. "She started playing excellent grass-court tennis, getting a lot of balls back, and I panicked a little bit. I usually don't. But give credit where it's due. She had decided that she was there to win Wimbledon, as well."
What bailed Williams out, above all, was her serve. She got even at 2-2 in the third set with an intimidating four aces in a row, a sure sign that she wasn't about to back down. On the break point that put her ahead 3-2, Serena crushed a cross-court backhand on a second-serve return, a shot Radwanska could barely touch.
And then, in the next game, came the drop shot.
"No one hits more drop shots than me in practice," she said. "I'm shocked I don't hit more in a match. I didn't even think about that one, I just hit it. I was so happy she didn't run it down. After that, I thought, I can definitely do this."
In an admirable display of sportsmanship, Radwanska never complained or showed any visible signs of her respiratory condition, save some nose-blowing moments during changeovers. She felt proud to have made this a competitive match, and her voice quavered during the on-court interview with BBC's Sue Barker afterward.
"I'm still shaking so much," she said. "It's a dream for everyone to be in the finals, and I'm basically just very happy. Disappointed to lose, but happy. It was the best two weeks of my life."
In that, the Wimbledon finalists had something to share.