Williams surrenders only to her ambition to rule the courts

IN 1999, the year The Sopranos arrives on our televisions, a young girl, 17, of equal cool and equipped with a game of calculated violence, erupts to win the US Open. It's a long, long time ago.

In 1999, CiCi Bellis, the American kid who beat Dominika Cibulkova at this year's Open, was five months old. In 1999, the Top 10 included Lindsay Davenport and Monica Seles. The first is now a mother with four kids; the second writes chick-lit books.

But that young girl, Serena Williams, she's still child-like in her greed for trophies, still competing, still forcing us to shake our heads with her wondrous game. Just take one random stat.

Kei Nishikori is three centimetres taller than her. Yet in his semi, his average first serve speed (106mph or 170.59kmh) is slower than hers in the final (107mph or 172.2kmh). He's 24, she'll be 33 later this month. This is still one special athlete.

Back in 1999, when her final opponent Martina Hingis says the Williams family has "big mouths", Serena counters: "She's always been the type of person that... just speaks her mind. I guess it has a little bit to do with not having a formal education."

Backing down isn't in her vocabulary; laughing it off isn't her style. She'll threaten a lineswoman if she comes in the way of her ambition. She can lose some days with an unashamed absence of grace. She'll tell you when her game is humming that she's close to unbeatable and it's true, but it can sound like hubris. If it's appalling at times, it's also revealing. You're never in doubt over what tennis - and winning - means to her.

There's no acting at these times, just a raw, uncensored look at the athletic heart and all its warts. There is a hardness to almost all great athletes, an almost disturbingly unrelenting quality. Some conceal it smartly, Serena often doesn't.

In her autobiography, she reprints her match-book notes, a sort of inspirational poetry to the self, where once she writes: "Hold serve, hold serve, hold serve. Focus, focus, focus. Be confident, be confident, be confident. Hold serve. Hold, hold, hold. Move up. Attack. Kill. Hold!!!"

Like in Sunday's final, there's no let up with her, no forgiveness. Perhaps it's the fury, and desperation, and frustration of not having won a slam all year, but she loses only 32 games all Open, which is less than five per match. Someone even asks her, in passing, if she can remember every player she ever lost to and she says:

"Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah."

Like these are slights she can't ever forget.

And this is the persistent, rugged beauty of Serena. This competitiveness that she's kept alight into a third decade. It's an affliction the uncompetitive never understand, this almost petulant, maddening, compulsive need to conquer everything. It's a disease only some catch, or as Phil Jackson, who had felt the sheer rage of Michael Jordan, once said: "You cannot teach competitiveness."

What number Serena is chasing we're not sure, but it's not the present she pursues, it's the past, those famous ghosts who litter the record books. On Sunday, she equalled Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert with 18 grand slam singles titles and this wasn't just a celebration but a history lesson.

Because when Chris-Martina showed up on court, the past all dusted off and neatly made-up, newer generations were forced to ask themselves: Who are these grand, leathery dames? Let this stat suffice. You think Roger-Rafa, who've played 33 times, in eight grand slam finals, is a rivalry? No, that qualifies as a brief encounter. Martina-Chris, 80 meetings, 14 slam finals, now that was a rivalry.

Navratilova has 167 total titles, Evert 154, Serena 63. So comparisons are complicated, but let's just say in a deeper women's draw, on more hurtful surfaces, in a faster game, longevity is harder. Yet there she still is, scrapping, yelling, grunting, pounding, not a player you'd instinctively embrace with affection but for whom there resides a powerful respect.

With her unfailing grit, Serena honours tennis; with her unfading hunger she pays homage to the game. It is why, even now, the complete surrendering of herself to her competitive urge remains one of sports' most evocative sights. She has an ache to win, as if making history is a habit she can't shake.

And so on Sunday, her 18th Major just won, her current mission completed, she couldn't help herself. As she said: "Hasn't even been three hours and I have already mentioned 19."


This article was first published on September 09, 2014.
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.