September 8, 2008
Serena Williams Wins U.S. Open and Returns to No. 1
By KAREN CROUSE
No top-ranked player in women’s tennis has slogged through so desolate a valley between peaks than Serena Williams. After relinquishing the top spot in August 2003, Williams fell so far that she was not within echoing distance of the summit two years ago.
Outside the top 125 at this time in 2006, Williams completed her climb back to No. 1 on Sunday night with a 6-4, 7-5 victory against Jelena Jankovic to claim her third United States Open title.
The 23-year-old Jankovic, who was appearing in her first final in her 21st Grand Slam event, fought gamely to the end, extending points with her dogged defense. Her nerves, which were indiscernible at the start, surfaced in the 19th game, serving at 5-4, when she squandered four set points.
After breaking Jankovic with a forehand passing shot, Williams won 10 of the final 16 points to secure her ninth Grand Slam singles championship. Williams converted her second match point with a backhand that fell as softly as a tissue, then threw her racket in the air and hopped up and down. When she made it to the net, she apologized to Jankovic for getting so excited.
The second-ranked Jankovic, who was No. 1 for a week last month, might have lost the match, but she won over the Arthur Ashe Stadium crowd during the award presentation. She started off by thanking everyone and her drivers. While accepting the runner-up trophy, she said: “I lost my No. 1 ranking. It’s not fair.” Then, as Williams was being presented with her $1.5 million check, Jankovic asked, “How much did I get?”
The answer, as she would soon find out, was $750,000.
No other woman has gone as long between stints at the top as Williams, who came into the tournament ranked No. 3 and will overtake Ana Ivanovic, who lost in the second round.
“It is that special because I’ve been working so hard,” said Williams, who did not drop a set in the tournament and lost 40 games.
It was a performance reminiscent of 2002, when Williams did not drop a set and beat her sister Venus. The No. 1 ranking, Williams added, “is just like an added bonus.”
Williams’s place in the pantheon of American luminaries was secure no matter what happened Sunday. That it had been five years since she held the No. 1 ranking did not preclude the two men behind the recent HBO documentary, “The Color List,” from including her in their portraits of 22 of the most fascinating and influential African-Americans.
The 26-year-old Williams joined, among others, the Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison and the former Secretary of State Colin Powell in pulling back the curtain to reveal the challenges and rewards of black life in the United States.
“I felt honored that they wanted me to speak on it and to be a part of it,” Williams said. “I was so excited to do it.”
Morrison talked about how writing was her only “free place,” an unfiltered outlet for her expression. The tennis court is that place for Williams, an entertainer inexorably drawn to the spotlight. Her flair for drama makes each of her matches an improvisational play in two or three acts.
While Morrison and Williams would appear to have much in common, Williams said she found Powell’s interview the most illuminating. “I was really struck by his story,” she said, “and everything he was saying.”
That is Williams in a sound bite, running around the obvious answer the way her opponents might run around a ball hit to their weak sides. In interview rooms, as on the court, Williams is famous for keeping her antagonists off balance.
When it comes to tennis, Williams has steadfastly adhered to her own script. Along with Venus, she began playing on public courts in Compton, a Southern California community that never will be confused with a tennis hotbed.
She was not a fixture on the junior circuit, and when she and Venus turned professional, as teenagers, they continued to take classes toward fashion degrees, and, in Serena’s case, pursue acting roles.
In 1999, Serena won the Open for the first of 16 Williams family Grand Slam singles titles. From the beginning of 2002 through the end of 2003, Williams won five of the six majors she entered.
Then she went from nearly invincible to almost invisible. Between January 2005 and December 2006, she played 44 matches, 5 fewer than she has in 2008. Williams’s world ranking was inching toward 140 when Chris Evert, an 18-time Grand Slam singles champion, gently took Williams to task in an open letter in Tennis magazine for tarnishing her legacy by not maximizing her extraordinary tennis abilities.
“In the short term you may be happy with the various things going on in your life,” Evert wrote, “but I wonder whether 20 years from now you might reflect on your career and regret not putting 100 percent of yourself into tennis.”
Evert, whose singular devotion to tennis stoked her success, added, “I don’t see how acting and designing clothes can compare with the pride of being the best tennis player in the world.”
Evert watched the final Sunday in the suite of Arlen Kantarian, the United States Tennis Association’s chief executive officer for professional tennis. Before the match, Evert conceded that in the long term the Williamses had proved her wrong.
Noting that former Nos. 1 Justine Henin, Martina Hingis and Kim Clijsters bowed out of tennis because of burnout while the Williamses have been playing as well as ever, Evert said: “Let’s put it this way. It’s opened my eyes not to be judgmental and to each his own. Whatever makes you happy. By having other interests, maybe you won’t get burned out as quickly.”
Williams’s fire once again is burning bright. “Just putting in the effort,” she said, adding, “I’m just enjoying every moment.”