WHEN SERENA WILLIAMS, in her humblest moments, describes herself as "just a kid with a dream and a racket," it's hardly meant to be taken literally. Yet there she was in her Manhattan hotel early Sunday morning, eyes watching the clock tick past 2 a.m., brain spinning from a binge session of Homeland, nerves frayed by the prospect of contesting that afternoon's 2014 U.S. Open final. And when she finally managed to doze, it happened: a tennis dream. Yes, she had a racket. She was also losing.
This is an article from the Sept. 15, 2014 issue
"I dreamt I lost to Victoria, actually," Williams said, referring to rival Victoria Azarenka. "It was an awful dream; I really wanted to win. I have all these vivid dreams that I miss the final because I go traveling somewhere—crazy, unrealistic dreams, but they seem so real. I dream that I fall and I can't play and I'm going, 'Oh, no....' "
That dream, it turns out, never had the slightest chance of coming true—not at Flushing Meadows, not this year. Azarenka, who'd lost in the quarterfinals, was nowhere to be seen in Arthur Ashe Stadium on Sunday afternoon, and neither was any sign of haplessness from—ta-da!—yet again the most dominant talent women's tennis has ever seen. Finishing off a Grand Slam rampage in which, for the first time in her career, she never lost more than three games in a set, Williams all but suffocated bestie Caroline Wozniacki 6--3, 6--3 to win her sixth U.S. Open and 18th major title overall, tying her with Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova for fourth on the alltime list.
In one sense the milestone was no shock; Williams's suddenly difficult quest for 18 had been the tour's main topic since she won number 17 in New York City a year ago. Yet when, at 6:09 p.m. on Sunday, Wozniacki's backhand sailed long, Williams looked more stunned than any of the 22,712 other souls present. She fell on her back, stood, hugged Wozniacki and thanked her, cried, wandered about, pressed her palms to her face, pointed to the sky. Then she dropped into her chair, torso shuddering with the effort of trying to breathe. Soon after, Evert and Navratilova walked out to welcome her to the club.
"When I fell to the ground, I thought, It finally happened," Williams said hours later. "But then when I saw Chris and Martina, it was like, Oh ... my ... God. This is a real moment. People always said, Oh, you're as good as them, but for me it was all about the numbers. And now that I actually had the same numbers, it felt even better. I was so happy."
Such an emotional finish qualifies as some kind of ... well, to call it a miracle would be a stretch; it's hard to describe a No. 1 as coming back from the dead. But you couldn't be blamed, just two months ago, for wondering if Williams's career was on life support. Her performance at Wimbledon—failing to move past the fourth round in singles for the third straight major—was bad enough. Then a doubles match with sister Venus devolved into an outtake from World War Z. Clearly addled, her hand-eye coordination short-circuited by what she, Wimbledon and the WTA medical staff termed a "viral illness," Serena bobbled balls and bounced her serve into the net. ESPN commentators speculated on-air about drugs, but Williams insisted last month that her problem was purely medical (SI, Aug. 25).
"I was so sick," she says. "I should have never played."
Then, once again, Williams clambered out of a hole. "There was a lot of negative press, like, Will I be able to win another Grand Slam? Was it the end of an era?" Williams says. "It wasn't about [winning] the U.S. Open at that point. I just wanted to win a tournament."
She met with her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, at his academy in Paris and told him, "I can't be lower. Help me. You love big challenges," Mouratoglou recalls. "She knows I do. She coached me to coach her. She pushed the right buttons to get me motivated."
After a rare vacation, in Croatia, Williams loaded up her schedule, played four straight tournaments for the first time in a decade, won Stanford, lost to Venus in the semis of Montreal, won Cincinnati. In New York City she rolled through the thinned-out field with ease, yet she screamed "Yes!" after the semifinal win over Ekaterina Makarova as if just playing the final was reward enough.
"You have no idea," Williams told the crowd afterward. "I didn't think I would be here today."
She might've been the only one. "I kind of expected it," Evert says of Williams's run. "I was surprised that she lost in Australia, lost at the French and lost at Wimbledon the way she did. When she loses? She's bad. If Serena plays well, she wins. Nobody beats her at her best."
Still, the fact that her triumph came just 24 hours after Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic suffered meek losses in the semis—to rabble like Marin Cilic and Kei Nishikori—seemed almost absurd. For a decade King Roger's jousts with Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray and Djokovic lent tennis a narrative of unprecedented steadiness. They fed off each other's excellence so ravenously, trained so monkishly, that envisioning another few years of four-way chess felt reasonable. Meanwhile, in the ballroom next door, Serena's solo reign unfolded in a slippery mix of tantrum, excellence, injury and absence: She often seemed just one pulled hamstring, one ripe movie role, away from bailing out for good.
"I definitely didn't see myself playing tennis at my age," Williams, 32, said a month ago in Montreal. "I just thought I would have been gone, doing other things."
Yet by fortnight's end, one of the tour's most dependable tropes had been turned upside down. The Big Four construct—responsible for 36 of the previous 38 major singles titles, and handed two golden paths to another—abruptly collapsed: Federer looked spent, Djokovic and Murray lacked all conviction, and God knows when Rafa and his bum wrist will show up to play again. The game's most irresistible force? There she stood on tiptoes amid the wreckage, silver trophy held high. Williams, not Federer, had made it first to 18 major titles; Williams, not Nadal, had figured best how to protect her muscled frame from injury; Williams, not Murray, had learned how to compete without imploding.
Consider: It has now been three years since she last lost her temper on court. That happened, infamously, in the 2011 U.S. Open final, when a hindrance call against Williams during her loss to Sam Stosur sparked another chapter of Serena drama. Such is the poetic pop behind Sunday's win. "It's totally apropos and symbolic," Evert says, that Serena ended up tying the record in Queens. The Open is where Serena won her first major and played in a Slam final against her sister for the first time. The Open is where, in '04, she got so jobbed on line calls that the sport was forced to introduce instant replay; where she promised to shove a ball down a lineswoman's throat in '09; and where she completed her comeback from a life-threatening illness in '11.
"The energy is incredible. It's America, the only Grand Slam here," says Serena's older sister, Isha Price. "The stage, the fanfare, the notoriety, the coming-home sense: All of that means something to her. When she was growing up? Venus always said, 'I want to win Wimbledon.' Serena always said, 'I'm going to win the U.S. Open.' "
The temptation now, of course, is to predict that Williams will make a sustained assault on Steffi Graf's Open-era record of 22 singles titles—or even Margaret Court's alltime mark of 24. "I see no reason why she can't match Graf," Evert says. "Margaret Court would be a herculean effort. She has another two or three great years in her, and then no more." Sunday night Serena wouldn't go beyond admitting that she's already thinking of number 19, and she's not sure that her run the last six weeks provides a blueprint for next year. "No," Williams said, "I can't say that. I thought I knew the formula before; I think the formula changes. If I didn't play those three [hard-court] tournaments, I probably wouldn't have won this, and I would never have done that last year. I don't know how this happens. I'm still learning."
That kid-with-a-dream line? She comes by it honestly. When Serena was six or seven, she and her sisters would play tennis in the front yard of their Compton home. The balls were old, they used their hands for rackets, and the cement walk was always the final of a Grand Slam. "We played on the hard for Australia and the U.S. Open, put dirt on it for clay, and we'd throw some grass on it for Wimbledon," Serena says.
They assumed the identities of the famous and great—Graf, Martina, Seles, Sabatini—and yelled out, "Here's Steffi's forehand!" or "Get ready for Martina's volley!" and romped for hours on the greatest courts in the world. "Had nothing. Didn't know it," she says. "I was so happy."
Early Sunday evening, Williams got back there again. This time for real.
For a look at what's next for Serena, as well as full coverage of the men's final (which took place after SI went to press), go to SI.com/tennis