You know that Serena Williams is back in town when the lead, or top paragraph in a news story, dwells upon the fact she came awfully close to losing a set in the final. That was the thrust of the WTA's own report on Stanford, where Williams on Sunday claimed her 43rd title with a win over surprise American finalist Coco Vandeweghe.
Fans throughout Williamsville perched on the edge of their seats as Vandeweghe had a set point while serving for the first set at 5-4. But she failed to get her first serve in and Serena punished her for it and won the point (and match, 7-5, 6-3). The faithful slumped back in their seats. The chair umpire and television commentators might have said, "OK, you can all go home now."
That's how it is these days for Serena, who's won a Djokovic-esque 28 of her past 29 matches, and is 34-3 on the year. The added sweetener is that this latest title at Stanford brings Serena even with Venus at 43 apiece. They say a tie is like "kissing your sister," and knowing the affection these two feel for each other makes me suspect they have a pact to retire with the same total number of titles -- even if Venus is too far behind to keep up in the Grand Slam division.
By the way, that 43-count is best among active players, and puts the Williamses in a tie with such luminaries as Martina Hingis and Justine Henin. Note that the latter two women left the game in premature fashion, while Serena is around the bend of 30 but seems as, if not more, determined and enthusiastic than perhaps ever before.
One likely reason is the upcoming Olympic Games, which afford her a shot -- almost surely her last -- at another medal to go with the two she already owns (both earned with sister Venus, in doubles). But Serena has never won a medal all by herself, in singles, while Venus has. Add that to her "Kissing Sister" list.
Another reason might be the state of her heart. Although Serena doesn't write me long, tear-stained letters pouring out the trials and tribulations of her love life, she did say something interesting at the beginning of Wimbledon, when a reporter observed that she looked a little glum and wondered why. She laughed and replied:
"I like these questions. Well, I haven't gotten any flowers in a really long time from someone of the opposite sex that doesn't have to do with business. When I did get flowers I didn't appreciate 'em, so ... Yeah, that would cheer me up."
That's about as far as we can go on that one, but I wouldn't be the first person to note that happiness is often the enemy of greatness, and that a dead spot in a player's emotional life can whet her appetite for revenge against the world. And who better to take it out on than her professional rivals?
It's a fact Serena was subdued and far closer to wistful than ebullient at Wimbledon, where she bagged her 14th Grand Slam title, good for No. 4 on the all-time WTA list.
Last and probably most likely, Serena has come to that part of her career when she understands that a tennis player is what she is, and who she is, and whom the world sees her as. This can be a critical realization -- just ask that reformed rebel Andre Agassi -- and it can add years to a career. This new or re-discovered appreciation for the game is a powerful stimulant, and it smells awfully sweet.
Even sweeter than roses, perhaps.