FOR MOST PLAYERS, AN EVEN KEEL IS THE KEY TO SUCCESS. SERENA WILLIAMS, ON THE OTHER HAND, THRIVES ON SPIRITUAL COMMOTION—AND HER WIMBLEDON VICTORY WAS A TWO-WEEK MASTER CLASS IN TEMPERAMENT CALIBRATION. NEXT STOP ON THIS EMOTIONAL ROLLER COASTER: THE U.S. OPEN, AND A CHANCE AT A GRAND SLAM
This is an article from the July 20, 2015 issue
IT'S THE story that keeps on giving. The reality show that's perpetually renewed. The Worldwide Domination Tour that rolls on, grossing millions, enthralling fans, making a mockery of history and resisting hyperbole. You'll have to check the back of the souvenir T-shirt for the full slate of dates, but recent triumphant stops include New York City, Melbourne, Paris and last weekend in London.
Hoovering up these tennis titles, though, affords Serena Williams little recreational time. With a few weeks off, Williams can now, as she puts it, "get in some me time." She can spend time with her Yorkie, Chip; renew acquaintances; and dispose of some of that disposable income—including the $5 million she's earned over the last five weeks alone. She also looks forward to watching Inside Out, "an awesome movie," says her older sister, Isha Price.
Price is right. The film has already grossed more than $300 million worldwide, so a spoiler alert is probably unnecessary. But Inside Out makes an intriguing point about an abstract concept, made digestible by the Pixar animation. We all have this flow of emotions inside our interior command centers—joy, sadness, anger, fear and disgust—and the film suggests that these various emotions don't snuff each other out so much as they work in concert to create fully formed individuals.
It's a perfect distillation of Serena's astonishing success in 2015, an explanation for why, having won the Serena Slam (four straight majors) for the second time in her career, she's one piece away from owning the ultimate box set in sports, tennis's Grand Slam. In winning the Wimbledon singles title for the sixth time and claiming the 21st major title of her career, Serena played her characteristically excellent, unanswerably powerful tennis. But the real undergirder of her success was finding the right algorithms and balancing her palette of emotions.
Some athletes strive for calm and simplicity and routine, a paring of the disruptions (see: Novak Djokovic). That's not how Serena rolls. For all that her parents, Richard and Oracene, got right when they began authoring the Most Unlikely Sports Story Ever Told, they sure whiffed on the names. Their youngest daughter is many things, but serene ain't one of them. "It's almost like she needs that drama," said 18-time Grand Slam champion Martina Navratilova, "to be fully engaged."
In the rare moments and intervals that Serena hasn't succeeded on the court since her breakthrough at the U.S. Open in (gulp) 1999, it hasn't been because of broken forehands or a dodgy serve. It's because of meltdowns and breakdowns. The drama wins.
But it hasn't lately. She's handled the drama and, with it, the occasions. And maybe more than in any tournament she's played, this Wimbledon required meticulous adjustments of temperament, each day demanding a different calibration. First, there was the pretournament hype. When Serena won the French Open last month—crying on the court, suffering from the flu, requiring three sets in five of her seven matches—it put her halfway to the Grand Slam. She handled the attendant pressure by refusing to talk about it or take any questions. "Nope," she told a slightly aghast BBC host at one point, playfully putting her hands over her ears. "Not going there."
Once a tournament starts, Serena can be vulnerable early, before the trophy is in sight and her focus becomes unswerving. There's often a storm before the calm—of her last four losses in majors, each has occurred in the middle rounds. At Wimbledon her big scare came in round 3 when she faced then 59th-ranked Heather Watson, a plucky 23-year-old Brit based in Bradenton, Fla.
When Watson pushed the match to a third set, the Centre Court crowd was united in its vocal backing of the homegrown underdog. When she fanned flames with one of those everyone-on-your-feet gestures, it displeased Serena in the extreme. When Serena appealed for quiet and the crowd only booed louder, she wagged a finger, cut everyone a look and warned, "Don't try me!" Serena's fury, though, melded with focus. A game from losing in a titanic upset, Serena steadied and closed, 6--2, 4--6, 7--5. Get off my lawn, kid!
Barely off the court, she was still upset by the experience, what she perceived as shabby treatment at the hands of both the crowd and the opponent. She was calmed by older sister Venus ... who also happened to be her next opponent in a match that would require an altogether different blend of emotions.
AFTER 26 iterations, the sports public has grown accustomed to Williams-Williams matches, perhaps taking these intrafamily affairs for granted. We neglect to consider how remarkable it is that the two players in the draw with the most major titles share the same DNA and once shared a bedroom; that now—with a combined age approaching 70—they are still going strong. Venus and Serena have, understandably, never warmed to these matches. They are awkward, fraught events, with the necessary elimination of a sibling. Still, this one would be especially delicate. Either Venus would win, ending her sister's run at history, or Serena would win, ending the best chance that Venus, age 35, might ever have of winning one last major title.
In the end Serena didn't merely beat Venus. She played one of her strongest matches in weeks, balancing empathy and sororal love with a sense of mission and professional responsibility. It was all done with a certain sucks-that-it-has-to-go-down-like-this resignation—and lacking any of the fist-pumping intensity and angry monologues at herself. But damn if even her big sister was going to thwart her Grand Slam campaign.
In the quarterfinals Serena required still another blend, one that included the fearlessness and clutch play that has come to characterize her career. Her opponent, 25-year-old Victoria Azarenka of Belarus, was not just a former No. 1 and two-time Australian Open champion, but she had also come within a few points of beating Serena in two previous matches this year. For an additional subplot, Azarenka is now working with Sascha Bajin, Serena's former longtime hitting partner and confidant, who is intimately familiar with her playing patterns and, perhaps above all, emotional makeup.
Azarenka played a near-perfect first set, winning 6--3. If the Centre Court crowd was again excited and primed to witness an upset, oddsmakers knew better. Sure enough, Serena stormed back with a fireworks display of explosive hitting. With Grammy-winning rapper Drake in her box yelling, unaccountably, "Eat your food, girl," Serena dialed in her strokes and squeezed off a round of aces, finishing her 17th straight third-set win. "We just saw why she is No. 1," Azarenka said in summary.
While Serena is friendly with Azarenka, she is full of animus for world No. 2 Maria Sharapova. Their longstanding chill officially became frost in 2013 when Sharapova publicly accused Serena of having a romantic relationship with Williams's married coach, Patrick Mouratoglou. For Serena, seeing Sharapova across the net triggers a singular set of emotions. The inevitable result: a summoning of her best, most ruthless tennis. Serena blitzed Sharapova yet again, pushing her career record in major semifinals to a ridiculous 25--3. And it pushed her head-to-head record (foot-to-backside record?) against Sharapova to 18--2.
Saturday's final presented still another emotional calibration. Serena was the heavy favorite against 21-year-old Garbiñe Muguruza, a hard-hitting Spaniard who was a five-year-old in Barcelona when Serena won her first major. Seeded 20th and playing in her first major final, Muguruza could either be paralyzed by the occasion or face it with a blissful nothing-to-lose freedom. Prepared for either scenario, Serena calmed herself when she took the court by singing the Flashdance theme song to herself.
After a shaky start, Serena took her passion and made it happen, winning nine of the next 10 games. Though never at her best, Serena did what was necessary to avoid the upset, winning 6--4, 6--4. Finally, the mix of emotions could include elation. Finally, she could address this quest for the Grand Slam. "One more to go," she told her entourage with a wink. Then, noticing she'd been overheard, she added, "But I try to live in the moment, and I'm still very much here."
IF SERENA managed drama, Djokovic, the defending men's champ, sought to avoid it. He spent select mornings during the tournament at a Thai Buddhist shrine near The All England Club in a quest for tranquility. "I needed to find the right path," he said. "People don't realize how mental a sport this is."
In an era that demands flash and GIF-worthy flourishes, Djokovic is fighting an uphill battle with the public. The Djoker is more technician than genius; a craftsman, not a magician. Apart from a peerless return of serve, his great strength is an absence of weakness. While it's not telegenic, it's awfully effective.
Djokovic has also shown tremendous powers of recovery. At the French Open last month he was a match away from winning the only major that has eluded him and—already entrenched atop the rankings—distancing himself even further from his colleagues. He lost in four sets in the final to Switzerland's Stan Wawrinka and later admitted, "I didn't know how I would bounce back or how long it would take."
Answers: 1) Well. 2) Not long. Djokovic blazed through the first week of Wimbledon without dropping a set. In the fourth round, however, he was down two sets to Kevin Anderson, a 29-year-old hard-serving South African. With the calm and precision of a Zen archer, Djokovic started playing as though missing weren't even an option. He survived the match and returned to the business of winning with efficiently unspectacular tennis.
This put him at odds with his opponent in the final. Since Roger Federer won his first major title there in 2003 (he now has seven Wimbledon trophies), the courts at The All England Club have always agreed with him. Some of it's pragmatic: the low bounce on grass that's ideal for his zinging one-handed backhand; the lawn's rewarding of his graceful movement. But there's also the feel-good factor. All that tradition and decorum and civility mirrors his Old World belief system. (One example among many: Federer resents the trend of players' taking the court wearing headphones.) He warmed to the simplicity that comes with renting a home in a village near the court, not staying at a hotel in an urban center. "Maybe you call it a sense of place," he says.
Whether it's causation or correlation, Wimbledon has also been the site of his best tennis. Federer, like Serena, turns 34 soon, and by the time he beat Andy Murray in the semifinals, with a dizzyingly high level of play, it appeared the fates had written the script. Djokovic, though, proved again that function can trump form. Pressuring Federer with his precise returns, he won the first set. In the second, he failed to convert seven set points and Federer leveled the match, to the crowd's delight. Ten minutes later, though, Djokovic broke Federer—again, those powers of quick recovery—and closed out the match 7--6, 6--7, 6--4, 6--3. Djokovic has now won nine majors, passing players with names like Agassi, Connors, Lendl and Ken Rosewall. "Djokovic is 28 and entering his prime," said seven-time Grand Slam champ John McEnroe. "Who knows? When it's all done, maybe he could go down as the best ever."
Serena is already credentialed with that distinction on the women's side. The summer started with a racehorse headed to Long Island, attempting to make history at the Belmont. It will close with a tennis player heading a few miles away, to the U.S. Open, with designs of accomplishing her sport's equivalent of the Triple Crown. Watch her while you still can—this champion, this American treasure, this real American Pharaoh.