Serena Williams defying all odds
The "legends" doubles matches are a staple at the Grand Slams. They help fill out the late schedule, and fans love seeing the older players clowning and having fun.
A few weeks ago, Olympic gold medalist Elena Dementieva reached the finals of the ladies' legends doubles at Roland Garros. Dementieva and partner Martina Navratilova fell to Lindsay Davenport and Martina Hingis 6-4, 6-2.
A few hours later, Serena Williams defeated Maria Sharapova in the women's singles final. We mention this because Dementieva, at 31, is actually 19 days younger than Williams. For that matter, Hingis (32) and Davenport (37) aren't all that far beyond.
Serena, who turns 32 in late September, became the oldest women's Open era winner of the French Open, eclipsing Chris Evert's 1986 mark. Sliced another way, consider that her other title at Roland Garros came (and this sounds preposterous) 11 years before. That's about a generation and a half for professionals these days. Williams, after Navratilova and Margaret Smith Court, became only the third woman to win a third Grand Slam after her 30th birthday. At Wimbledon, where she is defending the title, Serena could become the first to win four.
Which begs the question: How can she possibly be playing the best tennis of her life at an age when most of her former peers have retired? Another fun fact: Seven-time Grand Slam champion Justine Henin turned 31 earlier this month.
"Not sure what more we can say about Serena," Davenport wrote in an email from London. "She's amazing."
In a word, amazing. Yes, that's about right.
A win at the All England Club, where Williams is the overwhelming favorite, and for good reason, would give her four of the past five majors. She is also the oldest No. 1 women's player since the WTA began tracking rankings, going back nearly four decades. What's even more amazing is that her lead over No. 2 Victoria Azarenka, nearly 4,000 points, is the equivalent of two major titles.
After Serena beat Sharapova, a discerning scribe asked her if, like the great film star Greta Garbo, she had considered retiring at the peak of her powers.
"Wow, what an analogy," said Serena, clearly taken aback. "I want to go out in my peak. That's my goal. But have I peaked yet?"
It's a fair question.
The first time Serena put together a major flurry like this was 2002-03, when she won four straight Grand Slam singles titles (The so-called Serena Slam) and five out of six. A partially torn patella tendon in her left knee -- precisely the same injury that knocked out Rafael Nadal for seven months -- forced her to miss the next two majors.
The second sweet run came in 2008-10, when Serena won five of eight majors -- before a series of health scares (a serious foot injury and a pulmonary embolism among them) took her out of another three majors.
And now, she's off again. And Serena's so far ahead of the pack, she's on the verge of disappearing.
Technically, she has always been a terrific ball-striker, and her serve is generally viewed as the greatest in women's history. She dropped three aces on Sharapova in the final game; the last was clocked at 124 mph -- incredibly, the same speed as Nadal's fastest serve in his finals victory over David Ferrer. And 2 mph faster than anything Ferrer could offer. Improved footwork and balance has kept more of Serena's shots in the court, so it's fair to say she's actually better than she's ever been.
And then there is the psychological explanation. On numerous occasions over the years, Williams has discussed her ambivalence about being a professional athlete. Recently, she seems to have come to terms with her chosen profession -- and she has grown far more professional in her approach. She looks fitter, too, no small issue for an aging player. Perhaps, in this current incarnation, she has come to realize how much the sport (and her place in it) mean to her. It's never too late to maximize your legacy.
The best parallel to what Serena is doing can be found on the men's side at the leading edge of the Open era. Ageless Australian Ken Rosewall won the Australian Open in 1971 at the advanced age of 36 -- then defended his title a year later. Andres Gimeno of Spain is the oldest French Open champion on record, at 34 years, 10 months. A more contemporary example is Andre Agassi, who, like Serena, spent some of his early years less than focused. At 32 years old, Agassi won his last major, the Australian Open, in 2003.
The oldest Open era winners at Wimbledon, where grass tends to reward experience, are Arthur Ashe, who was nearly 32, in 1975, and Roger Federer a year ago, one month shy of 31. In 1909, one Arthur Gore won the last of his three titles at Wimbledon. He was 41. Navratilova earned a mixed doubles title with Leander Paes in 2003 -- at the age of 46. More recently, Jonas Bjorkman reached the semifinals at the All England Club. He lost there to Federer seven years ago at the age of 34, which suggests Federer might still have the stuff to get to the final four a time or two more.
In that French Open final, Serena beat Sharapova for the 13th consecutive time. That is the gap between No. 1 and No. 3. How about No. 2? Serena has won 12 of 14 times against Azarenka.
"It's a great accomplishment," Sharapova said, sounding slightly (and uncharacteristically) awed. "I think if you're at that stage in your life where you still are motivated to go out and win tennis matches and that's one of the most important things in your life, I think that's an amazing effort.
"I mean, I have nothing but good words about it."
Why, Serena was asked in Paris, is she playing so well late in her career?
"I'm really relaxed," she said. "I really enjoy every moment I'm out there. I always said that I felt like I have never played my best tennis. I have said that for years, that I feel like I can always do better and I have always wanted to reach that level."
She appears to be there. Going into Wimbledon, Serena has won 31 consecutive matches. If she reaches the semifinals, she'll pass sister Venus for the longest streak of the millennium.
"I really believe age is a number at this point," Serena said, "because I have never felt so fit. I feel great. I look great."
This drew some laughter from the assembled media, but it's true. Enjoy it while it lasts, for you might never see anything like it again.