Serena's anticlimactic return to No. 1

Serena Williams is set to take the court this week as the No. 1 player in the world for the first time in two and a half years. After securing the top spot by reaching the final in Doha last month, she pulled out of the following week's event in Dubai, meaning that the Sony Ericsson Open in Miami is set to be the 31-year-old American's first appearance as the oldest ever No. 1.

Not that much has been made of return to the summit since it happened. Part of that is because of the way it happened -- at a midsized event in Doha rather than a more high-profile venue, and that too after a loss in the final to Victoria Azarenka, the player who Williams was replacing at No. 1 and who had won a second straight Australian Open title only a few weeks previously.

This anticlimactic ascension was a bit of a twist, because for so long it has been Williams winning big titles and beating up on No. 1 players, leaving them to explain their higher-ranked positions to skeptical onlookers. This time, she was the one reaching the top while others stole the headlines.

There was also less reaction because it was seen coming a long way off. She had been creeping steadily closer and closer for months, and when it finally happened, it felt overdue more than anything else.

Perhaps the most important reason, however, is the long-standing public perception of Williams as the best player on the women's tour. Although her frequent absences and relatively low position in the rankings have been a routine discussion topic within tennis, Williams said in 2005 that she rarely heard about it from others.

"People don't ask me that. People always assume that I'm No. 1, and I never correct them in any way," she said. "They always assume, you know, that I've won the last Grand Slam -- I mean, except for the people that really watch, then they know. But other than that, people always assume that that I'm winning and that I'm No. 1. So, yeah, keep it like that."

And it has largely remained like that, a tribute to her abilities. But it also means that when it comes to her, No. 1 is seen not as an achievement so much as a return to the normal order of things.

But peel away all the assumptions and expectations, and it becomes clear how big the accomplishment really is, and how much it has taken to get there again.

Williams returned to the tour in 2011 after a cut foot and a series of related health scares kept her away nearly a year.

After making a rusty start on the grass, she concentrated even harder on fitness and training -- by her own account, she was even practicing every day, a first for her. She won two titles and was the favorite again entering the U.S. Open, but suffered a surprise loss to Samantha Stosur in the final and, for the second time in as many appearances, unleashed another angry outburst at officials during her last match of the event.

At the beginning of 2012, Williams injured herself, struggling to get going again. But she looked for ways to improve, changing strings following a quarterfinal loss in Miami, and taking on coach Patrick Mouratoglou after a first-round loss at the French Open. Along the way she began to win tournament after tournament, losing only one match the rest of the year, but still it wasn't enough.

"Obviously I felt I should have at least been competing for No. 1," Williams said, looking back in Doha. "I played a lot of tournaments and I won the majority of them, the ones that I played. I didn't do well, though, in two Grand Slams. I think that really affected me and really hurt me in my ranking."

She did what she's usually done when healthy and fit (and sometimes even when not) -- win big titles, taking Wimbledon, the Olympics, the U.S. Open and the WTA Championships. But she also did what she hasn't usually done -- play and win smaller events like Stanford (playing there a week after Wimbledon), Madrid and Charleston. Between 2005 and 2010, Williams won seven Grand Slam titles and just five WTA events. Since 2011, she has won two Grand Slams and eight other titles, including the Olympics.

And she didn't just do it by beating the players in front of her in the rankings, she frequently annihilated them.

It wasn't enough. Denied No. 1 last season, she began this year by taking the title in Brisbane, and then experienced an ankle injury in her opening match at the Australian Open. She needed to reach the semifinals to secure the ranking, but fell in the quarterfinals, just one match short.

So it was on to Doha, where a semifinal victory over Petra Kvitova finally returned her to the top. Following the win, she walked back toward the court, held up a finger to signify No. 1, and looked on the verge of tears. Her emotions still flowed freely as she came back to her chair.

"I didn't imagine that it meant that much to me. I did not expect to not be able to stop crying," Williams said afterward. "I didn't expect that reaction at all. I didn't expect that reaction. It was completely surprising to me, but it was nice. It was really genuine, and it felt good and completely unexpected."

With competition strengthening at the top of the women's game, it had taken seven titles, just three losses and a lot more playing than Williams has done in years. It didn't come easily, which is probably part of why it meant so much.

So when Williams' name appears on the top of the Miami draw as the No. 1 seed, it'll be worth looking at, and seeing what a climb it's been.