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Sunday, October 27, 2013
Updated: October 30, 8:34 AM ET
Fitting end to great year for Serena

By Matt Wilansky
ESPN.com

Here's a fun fact for you: We have 23 jellylike disks in our spine, and as we age, degeneration kicks in and the bones in our vertebrae collapse. In other words, old people shrink.

Everyone, that is, except for Serena Williams. At the delicate age of 32, she continues to tower over the WTA Tour. With most of her contemporaries either quaffing coffee at the local donut joint or taking their chances at the nearest bingo hall, she was busy making room in her already overcrowded lair for the latest trophy.

Serena Williams
What better way to end a career-best season for Serena Williams than with a title at the year-enders?
Despite a slow start, Williams ended the season just as we all suspected, a 2-6, 6-3, 6-0 win over Li Na in the WTA Championships finale. It was Williams' 11th title of the season, a career best and the most since Martina Hingis in 1997. Williams, who swept the year-enders for the second straight time, finishes 2013 with a cool $12,385,572. Suddenly, it looks like Black Friday debt won't be an issue.

"It was an awesome year of tennis," Williams told reporters after the match. "To end with the Billie Jean King trophy after 40 years and after everything we had the celebration for this year, I don't know if it's like written or what, but it's just really exciting. Again, I haven't had a lot of time to think about it, but I'm happy. I'm really happy that I was able to finish it off."

What Williams is doing doesn't, at least ostensibly, seem that extraordinary. That happens when your name is Serena Williams and a championship mindset is imbued in your DNA. But the truth is that what she has done is extraordinary. In 1999, in Williams' second year as a pro, the little kid sister to whom we thought was the empress of tennis, came dashing into the spotlight and put on a stunning all-court attack in New York to win the US Open. Fourteen years later, she did the same thing -- except this time with even greater command and with a lot more respect. In the world of tennis in which the window of success closes at alarmingly fast rates by age 30, Williams is acting like, well, a teenager.

And considering the narrow, fleeting confines of sport, you have to wonder if is she's the best player of the past two generations of women's tennis players? We'll remind you that the Grand Slam winners on the men's side in 1999 were Andre Agassi (twice), Pete Sampras and Yevgeny Kafelnikov.

It was a month ago to the day that Williams officially clinched the world No. 1 ranking for the third time, yet she showed no signs of letting up, winning the China Open and then Istanbul. Williams finished the season with a 78-4 record. Yes, 78-4! Who does that? And who does that at 32 years old?

And now, we have to ask, how much longer?

The truth is that there were some disconcerting signs this week, notably against Jelena Jankovic in the semifinals. Williams claimed she was just overtaxed from her busiest season on tour, one in which she played a career-high 82 matches. She labored through a long stretch of her encounter against Jankovic, and whether Williams was being honest or didn't want to admit she was injured, we don't know. And against Li in the final, it looked as if Williams was becoming a victim of her own ambition after a sluggish start. But the bottom line is that she won that match and won the title.

"That's really not a lot, but looking [back], it's really not a tremendous amount of tournaments," said Williams, referring to the amount of tennis she played. "It's definitely, I think, the results which was more consistent, so if I could play the same amount of tournaments and not do any more, I'm OK with that. But 15 I think is a bare minimum, or it's pretty low. Maybe I will do 14 next year or 13. Yeah. But definitely not more. Maybe one or two less."

Before the WTA Championships began, Williams told reporters that she is excited to take her game to an even higher level and that she could see herself still swapping strokes on tour in 10 years. Hey, when you've won nine of the past 18 majors you've competed in, who's to call her bluff?

And if you take a sweeping glance at Serena's rivals, what do you see? To start, there's Victoria Azarenka, who by all accounts is Williams' biggest threat. But while she has had strings of near-infallible tennis, the 24-year-old Belarusian has also failed to live up to the expectations of her early-season successes. In January, Azarenka won the Australian Open for the second straight year, beat down the field in Doha (where she edged Williams in the final) but failed to carry any of that momentum into the European swing.

Azarenka rebounded with a sweet run in Cincinnati (also beating Williams in the final), reached the US Open final and then hit, check that, violently collided with the proverbial wall. Azarenka ended 2013 by losing five of her final six matches of the year. Last season, Azarenka strung together 26 straight matches to start the year and then went nearly six months before winning another title.

How about Petra Kvitova, Li Na, Agnieszka Radwanska or Angelique Kerber? They've all had pockets of greatness, but the reality is none of them has sustained any kind of sterling play that would make you think they could challenge Williams on a consistent basis anytime soon.

Then there's Maria Sharapova. OK, stop your mocking now, folks. We know. Sharapova hasn't beaten Serena in eight years and holds a 2-14 lifetime record against the American. And who has been dogged by injuries more than Sharapova? My goodness, she hasn't won consecutive matches since May.

Williams
Serena Williams won 32 of her last 33 matches to close out a remarkable 2013 season.
So let's, for the sake of this argument, agree than none of Williams' current contemporaries is any kind of threat to her throne. What about the next generation of players? The other day, I listed a group of burgeoning stars. Sloane Stephens, who is the youngest player in the top 20, might be the brightest. But is she that person? Think hard about it. And do you really think the likes of Laura Robson or Madison Keys or Eugenie Bouchard will have any kind of success against Serena next year? In three years? Five?

Tennis is a funny game, though. Look at what Novak Djokovic did after a long stretch of puzzling retirements and shortcomings. He went three years, from 2008 to 2011, without a major. And then, voila, he transformed himself into a serial champ, and at 26 years old, he now has as many Slam titles as all-time greats Boris Becker and Stefan Edberg.

Williams could decide at any time she's has enough. But with 17 Grand Slam titles, just one behind the iconic duo of Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert, you have to think that her desire won't abate until she's safely secured a place in history she's comfortable with. Keep in mind, too, that the all-time record of 24 major victories is well within Williams' reach.

"I'm definitely gonna focus more, for sure, on the wins," Williams said. "Learn from my mistakes so I don't repeat them."

Because Serena is so motivated, because she has played a judicious schedule for much of her career and because reaching the pantheon's penthouse is a feasible quest, there is every reason to believe her when she says she could be playing until 40 years old.

Look, we can dissect Williams' rivals or make up some imaginary scenarios to try and figure out how much longer Williams will play and dominate, but I suspect the answer is a lot simpler than we think.

She'll be done when she wants to be done.