NEW YORK -- Four quick thoughts from the U.S. Open women's final:
• Serena Williams prides herself on a certain blissful ignorance of tennis history. I’ll just hit the ball and win matches. I’ll leave it to others to compile lists and mark records. But she knew what was at stake when she took the court on Sunday against her friend Caroline Wozniacki. This was her last chance to salvage a dismal Grand Slam season after failing to make even the quarterfinals in any of the first three majors. It was a chance to defend her U.S. Open crown yet again. It was a chance to reassert her place atop the rankings. It was a chance to climb alongside Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova and continue her scaling of the tennis mountain.
Classic Photos of Serena Williams
From her humble beginnings, Serena Williams has climbed to the top of the tennis world. Here are some rare photos of the woman Billie Jean King says is the best player in tennis history.
Serena Williams playing tennis in Florida in 1992.
Growing up in Compton, Calif., Serena worked tirelessly with Venus and their father to hone her skills.
Their California roots got Serena and Venus a photo op with President Ronald Reagan and wife, Nancy.
All five of the Williams sisters were exposed to tennis at an early age, but Serena and Venus seemed to display the most interest and strongest prospects.
In 1992, Serena, then 10, and Venus, then 12, stunned the tennis world when they each won their single divisions in the Southern California Junior Sectional Championships.
After several years living in Compton, Richard Williams relocated the family to Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., to enroll Serena and Venus in Rick Macci's renown tennis academy.
Serena was on hand for Venus's pro debut at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum Arena in October 1994. The family, including mom Oracene, are pictured here before that event.
Serena was in Venus's shadow for several years, but has matured into the more accomplished player.
At 17, Serena became the first African-American woman since Althea Gibson to win a Grand Slam title.
Venus and Serena, pictured here with Lindsay Davenport and Monica Seles, helped lead the U.S. in its 4-1 Federation Cup victory against Russia in 1999.
The sisters got in touch with their patriotic side during a 2000 photo shoot for SI. Serena has won four Olympic medals while representing the U.S., three in doubles and the other in singles.
Despite their undeniable skills and stockpile of titles, the Williams sisters have been accused of slacking off when pitted against each other in competition. Venus and Serena have vehemently denied those claims. Serena leads the head-to-head series 14-11 through August 2014.
Serena lost in hair-raising fashion in the quarterfinals of the first three majors in 2001, but made the final of the U.S. Open, which she lost to Venus.
Serena capped off a busy 2001 by carrying the Olympic torch in the leadup to the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City.
Julie Foudy, Summer Sanders and Serena appeared with Ronald McDonald at the World Children's Day Event in New York City in November 2002.
Serena created a stir when she competed in this cat suit at the 2002 U.S. Open.
Serena's appearance on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno coincided with her inclusion in the SI Swimsuit issue.
Serena's swimsuit poses didn't stop with SI. Here she poses during a December shoot.
Serena had a clothing line with Puma in the early years, but signed with Nike in 2004.
Serena in action at Fairmont Stadium in Arizona, where she had won the State Farm Classic the year before.
Serena's victory over Venus in the 2003 Australian Open made her the fifth woman to hold all four Grand Slam singles titles simultaneously. The media dubbed it the Serena Slam.
Seven-time NASCAR champion Richard Petty showed Serena around the garage area when she attended the Ford 400 in Homestead, Fla.
Pictured with Laura Harring and David Coulthard, Serena helped present the 2003 Comeback of the Year Award to soccer phenom Ronaldo at the Laureus World Sports awards.
Serena turned heads again at the 2004 U.S. Open, when she took to the court in this outfit. Officials told her to ditch the knee-high boots.
Serena's 2005 Australian outfit wasn't quite as flamboyant, but reinforced that she does have a fashion sense about her.
Seen here playing with her two dogs, Bambi and Jackie, Serena struggled through 2005 as a variety of injuries caused her to have her first non-Top 10 finish since 1998.
Recovering from a knee injury, Serena didn't win a single tournament in 2006 and finished the year ranked 95th in the world.
Serena celebrates a point during the 2007 Australian Open finals against Maria Sharapova. Williams, who was unseeded because of her World No. 81 ranking, continued on to beat Sharapova and win the tournament.
Serena made it to the quarterfinals of Wimbledon in 2007, where she lost to world No. 1 Justine Henin.
Serena unveiled her trench coat look at Wimbledon in 2008.
Serena lost 7-5, 6-4 to Venus in the finals at Wimbledon in 2008.
Serena and Venus rejoice after they beat Anabel Medina Garrigues and Virginia Ruano Pascual of Spain during the gold medal match at the Beijing Olympics.
The victory was their second consecutive gold medal in doubles.
Serena reacts after defeating Jelena Jankovic to win the 2008 U.S. Open title.
Serena poses with Kim and Khloe Kardashian and rapper Common, whom she once dated.
Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross with Serena and Venus after it was announced they had become minority owners of the NFL football team.
Serena kids around after winning a title in Melbourne.
Serena had an 18-match Grand Slam tournament winning streak snapped at the 2009 French Open.
Serena famously lost her temper at the 2009 U.S. Open, berating the line judge for calling a foot fault. She was assessed a point penalty, which happened to be on match point in the semifinal, giving the victory to Clijsters, 6-4, 7-5.
Serena is seen here enjoying a White Sox-Yankees game with former Bronx bomber Reggie Jackson.
Other than her 2002 victory in the French Open, Serena had never made another final at Roland Garros. That is, until she won the 2013 edition.
Queen Elizabeth II meets Roger Federer, Serena, Novak Djokovic and others on Day 4 at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club. It was the first visit by Queen Elizabeth II to the Championships in 33 years.
Serena didn't lose a set in winning Wimbledon in 2010.
Serena and Venus, the two-time defending doubles champions at Wimbledon, lost in the quarterfinals in 2010. Serena cut her foot on a piece of glass a few days afterwards and missed the rest of the season.
Serena and Venus at the end of their exhibition match at La Macarena bullring in Medellin.
Serena along with Kim Kardashian and Sean "Diddy" Combs at a 2012 Pre-Grammy gala.
Serena on the red carpet at the Vanity Fair Oscar party in West Hollywood. That same week she underwent emergency treatment for a blood clot in her lungs.
Serena, Tim Tebow and Venus at the 2012 Vanity Fair Oscar Party.
Serena was overcome by emotion after winning her fifth Wimbledon title. The victory came a little more than a year after she had been hospitalized with a pulmonary embolism. It was the first Wimbledon title by an over-30 woman since Martina Navratilova in 1990.
Wimbledon singles champions Serena Williams and Roger Federer at the Wimbledon Championships 2012 Winners Ball. It marked her third Wimbledon title in four years.
Venus and Richard Williams congratulate Serena after she won her first major title in two years.
Serena poses with members of Engine 54 Ladder 4 Battalion 9 in New York the day after winning the U.S. Open.
Serena won seven tournaments in 2012, including the WTA Championships in Istanbul.
Serena plays a forehand during the 2013 Australian Open. She lost in the quarterfinals to Sloane Stephens, who later in the year said several critical remarks about Williams.
Two points from defeat in the Open final, Serena regained her composure to come back and win the last four games, beating No. 1-ranked Victoria Azarenka 6-2, 2-6, 7-5 for her fourth U.S. Open title and 15th Grand Slam title overall.
Serena poses after winning the Sony Tennis Open 2013 in Key Biscayne, Fla.
Serena finally cast off her Parisian demons—she hadn't been past the quarterfinals since 2004—to win her second French Open title 11 years after her first title in 2002.
Serena wins the U.S. Open against Victoria Azarenka in 2013.
Serena Williams and Caroline Wozniacki pose with Miami Heat's Greg Oden and the NBA Eastern Conference championship trophy in 2014.
Serena Williams and Caroline Wozniacki pose together in the water on May 31, 2014, in Miami Beach.
Serena Williams plays a backhand in her semifinal victory over Madison Keys in the 2015 Australian Open. Serena would go on to defeat Maria Sharapova in the final match for her 19th grand slam singles title.
Serena Williams poses with the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen trophy after winning the singles final against Lucie Safarova at the 2015 French Open.
Serena Williams in action against Lucie Safarova in the Finals of the 2015 French Open.
Serena Williams plays Maria Sharapova in a semifinal match at the 2015 Wimbledon Championships.
Serena Williams arrives at the 2015 Wimbledon Champions Dinner at The Guildhall in England.
Serena Williams attends Nike's "NYC Street Tennis" event in August 2015.
Serena, with Estelle, Jason Biggs, Jenny Mollen and Uzo Aduba at the 2nd Annual Delta Open Mic, a few days before the 2015 U.S. Open began.
Serena Williams attends the 2015 Taste of Tennis New York at W New York Hotel while in town for the start of the U.S. Open.
Serena Williams did an inpromtu split during her match against Bethanie Mattek-Sands at the 2015 U.S. Open.
Serena Williams wipes sweat away after falling 3-0 in the first set to Bethanie Mattek-Sands at the U.S. Open.
Serena Williams in action against Kiki Bertens at the 2015 U.S. Open.
Serena signing autographs for fans at the 2015 U.S. Open.
Serena Williams celebrates after defeating Venus in their quarterfinal match at the 2015 U.S. Open.
Serena and Venus hug after their quarterfinal match at the 2015 U.S. Open.
Serena Williams accepting the 2015 Sports Illustrated Sportsperson of the Year award.
Serena Williams after a win over Maria Sharapova at the 2016 French Open.
Serena Williams after winning the 2016 Wimbledon title, her 22nd Grand Slam crown, which tied Steffi Graf for the most in the open era.
And she met the moment with grace and conviction. Playing with an ideal calibration of aggression and control, Williams pummeled Wozniacki 6-3, 6-3 in a match that managed to be even less competitive than the score indicated. Williams must be thrilled with the level of play and equanimity she deployed in winning her third consecutive U.S. Open and equaling Evert and Navratilova with her 18th major title.
• Wozniacki played a forgettable and tentative match, but she is back on the singles market in more ways than one. She has always been an exquisite retriever with some of the best court coverage in the game. On the hard courts this summer, she married her consistency with some pop, taking big swings when the situation merited it. There weren’t enough of those on Sunday; she lacked the assurance that she betrayed in the first six rounds. (Yes, of course the opponent had much to do with that.) But she should feel proud of her recent play, a stretch in which she won a title in Istanbul and lost to Williams in the Montreal quarterfinals, Cincinnati semifinals and U.S. Open final. And, as the 24-year-old Dane goes forward, she should remember: By itself, defense doesn’t win championships. Hit the darn ball!
• One of the keys to beating Williams these days is to put her under pressure. At this stage in her career -- as the sands of time slip out -- she is susceptible to pressing when she’s off her game or is being robbed of time. That’s what happened at the Australian Open, French Open and Wimbledon this year. As she felt the tension, she took bigger risks, especially on her serve. As she pressed on her serve and missed, the rest of her game came under stress.
On Sunday, though, Williams essentially took herself to the day spa. She jumped out to an early lead in both sets. She dictated without going for winners. She took advantage of Wozniacki’s nerves and inaccuracy. She didn’t serve particularly well, but didn’t have to. As high-stakes matches go, she couldn’t have treated herself much better.
• We are back to watching one of the truly elite athletes of our generation. Serena’s 18th major and sixth U.S. Open title comes 15 years after the first, a level of longevity few players have matched. Williams improved to 18-4 in major finals -- and two of those defeats came to her sister Venus. A few weeks from turning 33, she is still better than the rest of the field by several orders of magnitude when willing and able. Again, she showed a remarkable ability to overcome a challenge -- the result of a disappointing Wimbledon that ended in a bizarre doubles retirement -- and revert to her dominating ways a few weeks later. She is the winner. She is a champion.