yesErena Williams was on the ropes. After sailing through the 2012 US Open draw, she found herself down 3-5 to Victoria Azarenka in the third set of the final. Then the world’s top-ranked player, Azarenka had done what no other player could so far that year at Flushing Meadows. She ran Williams ragged, frustrated her into forehand errors and disrupted her most unstoppable weapon: Williams’ lighting bolt of a serve, arguably the greatest shot in the history of the women’s game.
Even though Williams would valiantly close the gap to 4-5 on serve without recording an ace, Azarenka still had the title on her racket. To hear Williams tell it afterward, she was so spent, so done that she had already begun drafting a runner-up speech in her head. And when Azarenka jumped out to a 40-love lead and triple championship point, it seemed as if it wouldn’t be long before the Arthur Ashe Stadium crowd heard it. But something deeper inside her would not allow her to back down. When Azarenka missed a deep crosscourt forehand by a hair’s breadth, that inner force was revealed itself. It shone through her determined point construction of her, her relentless defense and her unmissable appetite for combat. Just as suddenly as Williams was facing certain elimination, she won 16 of the last 22 points for a 7-5 third-set edge to claim her fourth US Open title.
This epic triumph in Queens, the first final in 17 years to three sets, didn’t just strengthen Williams’ case for being the greatest of all time. (With that 15th career singles slam, she became the first woman since Martina Navratilova to win a major after age 30, and the only women other than big sister Venus and Steffi Graf to win Wimbledon, Olympic gold and the US Open in the same year .) It netted her another title: queen of the comeback. Never mind that it seemed a bit of a misnomer, technically speaking.
There’s good reason why Williams has won a combined 37 grand slam titles. For most of her 27 years on the pro tour, she has been the ultimate favorite. While the Big Three of the men’s game regularly faced stiff tests against themselves and the odd striver, Williams has mostly blown three generations’ worth of players off the court. She didn’t just launch the current epoch of “Big Babe” tennis. She was the baddest of them all – a fast and elastic final boss who could outhit everyone else on tour. Of her 23 career major singles trophies, six of her she claimed without dropping a set. The most common score that she’s posted during that run? 6-1. Altogether, she had never lost more than 29 games en route to a major triumph. When Williams says, as she often has throughout her career, that only she can beat herself, looking back, it’s a wonder anyone ever thought to argue the point. Relatively rare are the matches where an opponent proved otherwise. But, still, they did happen.
If Serena was ever in awe of any opponent, it was Venus. She was the player who set the standard, paved the way and is still touring into her 40s – two decades on from going public with her Sjögrens Syndrome diagnosis. Thirty-one times, they’ve met over the course of their unlikely careers – each matchup a palpably anxious affair. A third of those clashes have gone three sets. In the beginning the older sister got her way, turning back Serena from titles at Melbourne in 1998, the All England Club in 2000 and Flushing Meadows in 2001. The tide turned in 2002. At that year’s French Open Serena rallied to a three-set victory over Jennifer Capriati before waxing Venus in the final. At another all-sisters Wimbledon final weeks later, Serena broke out of a first-set tiebreaker on her way to paydirt.
In between that historic breakthrough on the grass and the slugfest with Azarenka, Williams has provided ample reason to never bet against her while she’s down. In the 2003 Australian Open semi-final against peak Kim Clijsters, Serena came back from two match points to win in three, then beat Venus in the finals to complete the Serena Slam (for the first time). In the 2005 Australian Open semis Williams turned a sure straight-sets victory for Maria Sharapova into a three-set triumph of shotmaking mastery and mental resolve that would set the tone for their lopsided rivalry.
After dropping a first-set tiebreaker in the 2009 Wimbledon final to Elena Dementieva – who had beaten Williams in three of four previous meetings, most recently in the quarter-finals of the Beijing Olympics – Williams roared back and saved a third-set match point on the way to snapping a six-year Wimbledon title drought. Facing Svetlana Kuznetzova in the 2013 French Open final, Williams charged back from a near first-set shutout to sweep the next two frames.
While that victory, the second of Williams’s three major championships on clay, was a showcase in grit that went beyond the terre battue, it wasn’t until Williams rallied to the 2012 US Open title that the Comeback Queen was officially crowned. After all, she hadn’t just fought her way past Azarenka, she had stamped herself as tennis’ undisputed best after taking a year off to heal from a freakish, near-fatal accident that saddled her with a hematoma and a pulmonary embolism and left her wondering if she could ever reprise her top form, much less return to the game at all.
In a sense, that’s what makes Williams’s stated intent to step away from the game so tough to accept. She’s come back from everything – stubborn rivals like Azarenka (whose 5-18 record against Williams is better than it appears), celebrity breakups, the murder of her older sister Tunde, a C-section childbirth that also nearly killed her. And even though she may be ready to say her goodbyes to her, anyone who’s been watching her this long would have to be a fool to count her out altogether.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism