She had them all fooled. Whenever Serena Williams was away from the tennis firmament in recent months--when she was backstage at a fashion show, on the set of a Will Smith--produced TV program, at P. Diddy's New Year's Eve dinner--folks assumed that she was still her sport's reigning monarch, still winning Grand Slam titles in bulk. She smiled and nodded and played along. "I never corrected them in any way," she says. ¬∂ She never bothered explaining that, in fact, she hadn't won a major title since Wimbledon in 2003. She kept mum about her eviction from the Top 5, about her dimming aura among her colleagues, about the army of Russians that had displaced her as the dominant force in women's tennis. And she certainly didn't explain why: That apart from a string of injuries and from surgery on her left knee, she was struggling with profound feelings of loss after her oldest sister, Yetunde Price, was fatally shot on a street in Compton, Calif., in September 2003. "To be in the situation I've been placed in for a little over a year," she said last week, "it's not easy to come out and perform your best."
So the Australian Open championship that Williams won last Saturday, after beating three of the four top seeds, may have been the most meaningful title of her colorful career. Beyond effectively reclaiming the top spot in her sport and adding to her haul of Grand Slam singles trophies (now seven), winning her first major since Yetunde's death was a big step in her grief therapy. "Remember, Serena was 21 when this happened--21 years old and her life was changed forever," says Isha Price, the second oldest of the five Price and Williams sisters. "Like all of us, she's been going through her [mourning] process in her own way. This win will really help."
If time has blunted some of the pain, reminders of the tragedy are abundant. Serena watches as her sister Venus struggles with her tennis, knowing that the ultimate reason is not a shaky second serve and a recalcitrant forehand. It runs much deeper. "Venus took the death of our sister really, really hard," says Isha, an attorney in Washington, D.C. "She has some emotional things she needs to work out." Serena looks on in awe as her mother, Oracene Price, raises the daughter and two sons, none older than 13, whom Yetunde left behind. And when Serena is on the court, she hears her relatives yelling, "Come on, Meeka," the nickname Yetunde gave her as a kid.
"I guess I want people to understand that our family is so important [to us] and that a loss like that was devastating," Serena says. "So to come back and win is so key."
Her triumph had other consequences as well. It issued a sharp rejoinder to critics in the tennis salon who have long carped about her on-again, off-again commitment to the sport. "Serena cannot be a champion again without being fully dedicated," one Australian television commentator mistakenly put it last week. "That's just conventional wisdom." (News flash: Any player who wears lime-green knee-high spats onto the court for warmups doesn't give a damn about conventional anything.) Williams also sent a strong message to the rest of the field. She may be ranked only No. 2 as of Monday--up five places from before the Open--but she is, unmistakably, once again the brightest star in the women's tennis cosmos.
In Melbourne, Williams looked, for better and worse, every bit like the player who completed the Serena Slam two years ago, winning the French Open, Wimbledon, the U.S. Open and the Australian in succession but not in one calendar year. Her game is still mottled with unforced errors, and her fitness level remains, shall we say, suboptimal. But her basic strategy--pound the ball as if it owes you money, and fight like hell--remains devastatingly effective. In the semifinals she was down match point three times to her new rival, Maria Sharapova, the self-enchanted Russian. Each time, Williams gritted her teeth and delivered the necessary shots, and she prevailed 2-6, 7-5, 8-6.
In the final Williams fell behind 1-4, took a long injury break for a mysterious back problem--described by the trainer as a "rib dysfunction"--and then, after losing the set 2-6, won 12 of the next 15 games from a shockingly listless Lindsay Davenport. When Williams brags, "I'm still the top fighter out there," it doesn't spark much debate.
Marat Safin, on the other hand, had rarely betrayed a taste for combat before he won the men's final on Sunday. The 6'4" Russian had always been an enigma, if a charming one: a monstrously talented player with a history of erratic results and mentally vacant performances. He won the 2000 U.S. Open at age 20, overpowering Pete Sampras in the final, but in the ensuing four years he didn't win another major title. He was the youngest player ever to reach the top ranking, in November 2000, yet at the start of 2004 he was perilously close to falling out of the top 100. "It's all in his head," said Mats Wilander, a three-time winner in Melbourne and one of Safin's many former coaches, before the men's final. "It's not like a bad second serve you can fix on the practice court."
By all outward appearances Safin relished his role as the sport's literal court jester. At last year's French Open he pulled down his pants to exult after winning a point. He was a favorite in the pressroom, where he could be witty and self-deprecating in four languages. His propensity for smashing rackets became a running joke. But in truth, he despaired. "Once you have bad losses, people speak and you listen," Safin says. "You start to believe that maybe it's who you are: You can lose to anybody, you can beat anybody, but that's it. After a while you don't believe you're good enough."
There was no transforming event, no single moment of reckoning for Safin. Still, he arrived in Melbourne a changed man, projecting an air of seriousness and studied calm. His antics in matches were few, and his press conferences were fairly colorless. Most of the rackets in his quiver remained unbroken. "I needed to pass through to a new stage," says Safin, who turned 25 last week. "I'm calmer than I used to be. I guess I was tired of making the same mistakes."
This new maturity was increasingly manifest as the tournament progressed. The men's draw produced breathtaking matches, none more so than Safin's semifinal dethroning of King Roger I. In his former life Safin would have folded like a chaise longue in a tight match against Roger Federer, the best player in the world. But in his current incarnation the Russian summoned his best tennis at the crucial moments, staving off a match point, firing ground strokes with merciless precision and winning a classic, 5-7, 6-4, 5-7, 7-6, 9-7. Beating Federer in the fifth set at a Grand Slam is tennis's equivalent to staring down Tiger Woods, circa 2000, in a one-hole playoff. But afterward, in an on-court interview with Jim Courier, Safin was so somber that Courier asked, "Do you need a hug, or what?"
Safin was no less businesslike in the final, thwarting Lleyton Hewitt's quest to become the first homegrown Australian Open men's champion since 1976. After losing a nerve-addled first set, Safin offered a tasting menu of shots that were downright Federerian in their virtuosity. The highlight was a running forehand winner that drew a standing ovation from the pro-Hewitt crowd. (Reporter's note: f/hdead run zing--r u joking?) When it came time to serve out the match against Hewitt, the game's most pugnacious opponent, Safin held at love--a fitting coda to two weeks of poised tennis.
Even after winning the big-ticket title that had been so long in coming, Safin didn't lapse into his former ways. There would be no leap into the stands. His valedictory to the crowd was filled with thoughtful, insightful remarks; the customary Safinisms and one-liners were scarce. And he had no plans to lay siege to Melbourne's nightclubs. "I'm getting too old for this," he said. "I need to take it easy."
Williams was similarly subdued in victory, all too aware that there are matters more important than the outcome of a tennis match. As she accepted congratulatory calls and read her e-mail following Saturday's final, there was a conspicuous absence on her caller I.D. and her Buddy List. Still, Yetunde had been riding tandem with her throughout the tournament. "My sister is here in spirit," Serena said, brushing a tear out of her left eye. "I wanted to win this for her. But I wanted to win this for me too."
Before repairing to her hotel, she posed with the trophy, sitting on the bow of a water taxi docked in the Yarra River. Photographers snapped away and passersby cheered and other boats honked. Then the water taxi left the shore and off Serena went, smiling as she left everyone in her wake.