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NEW YORK -- Serena Williams was up until 3 a.m. Monday belting out karaoke in New York City. She loves the ballads and, after her fourth U.S. Open victory and 15th Grand Slam title, one song stood out -- Gloria Gaynor's classic, "I Will Survive."
|The Tiffany U.S. Open trophy has Serena Williams' name on it for a fourth time.|
So she picked up the microphone and gave it all she had.
"It really was a great story for me to sing last night," Williams said. "I really, really felt those words."
Two hours after her head hit the pillow, Williams was back up. Her hair was tamed into soft corkscrew curls, her powerful frame cajoled into a cream-colored Michael Kors sheath, custom-tailored to her curves, and she slipped Christian Louboutins on her feet to begin her victory tour.
"It's been a really long mental summer for me," she said.
During a noon visit to a Park Avenue sponsor's headquarters, she talked about why this U.S Open win is different. Part of it was the process of recovering from a life-threatening pulmonary embolism in February 2011, for which she needed emergency treatment. There was no tennis for a time, and it didn't look like there would be again.
"There was a feeling that I didn't even think about playing tennis," Williams said. "And I always said my goal wasn't even to play anymore, it was just to be healthy. And I thought, 'Wow I've had a great career, but I just want to be healthy and make it out of here.'"
She didn't worry about winning another Grand Slam title or keeping up with her five-hour daily workout, much less a summer in which an Olympic gold would be sandwiched by Wimbledon and the U.S. Open.
"I just feel there's way more appreciation because each one is going toward history now," Williams said. "It just feels so special and it just feels different, so I really enjoy that feeling."
She is reclaiming time she thought would be taken from her by her health crisis, so the idea that she might think about retiring anytime soon can be dismissed. Now she is fourth on the list of all-time Grand Slam winners, and the 18 won by Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova look tantalizingly close.
"I just started playing for history; I hope I see it," Williams said.
Williams hasn't always loved the U.S. Open. She won her first major here in 1999, and she has always appreciated the crowd support. But she hasn't been her best self here when it came to her reaction to line calls. She cursed at one lines person in a way that wouldn't be cool even at a boxing weigh-in. In 2004, 2009 and 2011 she had run-ins with officials over calls and was issued several fines as a result.
She has been painted as the villain in those episodes, but Williams has a different narrative.
"It's been a place where I won my first major and my best memory," Williams said, "and then after that it just went downhill. From line calls that were completely outrageous, to more line calls that were outrageous and calls of hindrance that were even more outrageous. It's been a love and then hate, hate, hate, hate, hate relationship."And it was good to get back [Sunday]. I mean I don't feel completely comfortable, you never know what's going to happen, but I do feel much better."
She picked up the Tiffany U.S. Open trophy, a silver cup engraved with the names of winners through the years. She lifted it up and down and judged: "It's the lightest one. The heaviest one is Australia -- or maybe the French. I haven't held it in so long, though."
And here Williams laughed. "I don't know what that one feels like anymore."
Even the elegant designer dress can do only so much to cloak her sheer physical power. She towers in the heels, and her muscular arms seem completely capable of conjuring the best serve in the women's game. Although Williams hasn't played every event on the WTA Tour for the entirety of her career, it might contribute to her longevity.
"So many people on tour are like, 'Oh, you just show up and you win matches,'" Williams said. "And I just smile and I let them believe that, but the fact of the matter is I probably work harder than anyone on the WTA Tour."
It's a grind she has learned to love -- even though she declares that she "has no life" when she's at it. In February, she broke off her recent relationship and then joked that she can't even remember his name any longer. (She was reported to be dating the rapper Drake.)
"I think it helps me if I'm in a relationship, I'm fine and I do well," Williams said. "But I feel like when I'm out, I'm angry and I do even better. I don't know which is better, but it's a win-win situation."
And so, at age 30, Williams can devote all her angry attention to racking up more Grand Slam titles. She is playing for history. It didn't always look like she would in the years when she played a shortened tour schedule and talked more about her fashion business. But the series of events has made her realize she can create a legacy -- and that's what she wants despite all the ups and downs in recent years.
"It's definitely been a roller coaster, but," and Williams said this with a nod to Gaynor, "I survived."