Serena Williams' major mark worth the wait

LONDON -- On the several occasions the question surfaced earlier this fortnight, Serena Williams batted it out of the air like one of her 120 mph aces.

What would it mean to collect a 22nd Grand Slam singles title and reach the Open era record of Steffi Graf?

Williams, who has been hearing variations on this reoccurring theme for a full year now, has developed an impenetrable defense: essentially, no comment.

"I don't know," she said Thursday after reaching her ninth singles final here at the All England Club. "My goal has never been 22. I don't talk about that anymore."

After Saturday's emphatic 7-5, 6-3 victory over Angelique Kerber, let the conversation begin. It's Serena and Steffi, long since retired, in a dead heat. Only Margaret Court's all-time record of 24 is beyond them.

With an easy forehand into an open court to win the match, Williams fell dramatically, almost cartoonishly, backward to the grass. When she popped up, she flashed the victory sign -- two fingers on each hand -- and positively beamed.

And there, intrepid reporters, was your answer regarding the elusive 22.

"I have definitely had some sleepless nights, if I'm just honest with a lot of stuff," Serena said. "Coming so close. Feeling it, not being able to quite get there.

"But, you know, it makes the victory even sweeter to know how hard I worked for it. ...It's obviously a great relief."

She was already the oldest woman to win a Grand Slam singles title in the Open era, which came a year ago at Wimbledon. Now, Williams, nearly 35, adds a year to that. This is her ninth major title after turning 30 -- far and away best total ever. Court and Martina Navratilova had three each.

It is worth noting that Serena has now reached the final at seven of the past eight Grand Slams. For the record, No. 1 Novak Djokovic is six for his past seven.

It was a composed, controlled performance by Williams in front of some of her favorite people, including sister Venus, Beyonce, Jay Z and Ellen DeGeneres.

After winning four consecutive majors to reach 21, Serena found herself in a holding pattern. She lost in the semifinals of last year's US Open (surprisingly, to Roberta Vinci), then to Kerber, the 28-year-old German, in the Australian Open final and Garbine Muguruza in the recent French Open final.

Now, 5½ months since losing to Kerber Down Under, she is over that formidable hump.

"Well, this tournament I came in with just a different mind frame and mindset," Williams said. "I knew in Melbourne I thought I played well, but honestly Angelique played great, she played better. She just played really good tennis.

"So I knew that going into this one, I just needed to keep calm, be confident, just play the tennis that I've been playing for well over a decade."

Serena thus defended her title here and became a seven-time Wimbledon champion, tying Graf and Dorothea Lambert Chambers for third on the all-time list behind Navratilova (nine) and Helen Wills Moody (eight). This one came, incredibly, 14 years after the first, in 2002, as a 20-year-old.

Williams' up-to-the-minute list of major trophies: six at the Australian Open, three at the French Open, seven at Wimbledon and six at the US Open.

The last time two women met in two Grand Slam finals in the same year? A decade ago, when Amelie Mauresmo beat Justine Henin in Melbourne and Wimbledon. Kerber was hoping to do the same to Serena.

Kerber, a better mover, consciously tried to push Serena around and attack her backhand. Aces aside, a formidable breeze favored Kerber's ability to adjust on the fly.

The two punched and counterpunched their way to the brink of a first-set tiebreaker, but two loose errors from Kerber gave Williams two set points. A majestic backhand, deep and in the corner, was too good for Kerber to return. That unleashed a screaming Serena, who suddenly seemed to want this very much.

With Williams serving the seventh game of the second, a break point -- the first of the match -- suddenly appeared. Serena's response was a 117 mph ace, followed by a 124 mph ace -- a quick end to any thoughts of giving in to Kerber.

Serena finished in a blur, winning the last eight points.

"I think I played what I could today," Kerber said in her postmatch interview. "I can just say, I mean, Serena was serving unbelievable today. At the end I was trying everything, but she deserved it today.

"Yeah, I mean, I think I was not the one who [lost] the match. I think she won the match."

Maybe this is the rivalry women's tennis has been aching for? Williams will be No. 1 exiting this tournament (for the 177th consecutive week), and Kerber will be No. 2.

And now those snarky scribes have a whole new line of questioning to investigate: How long before Serena Williams passes Court's all-time record of 24 majors? It could happen as soon as next year's Wimbledon -- or perhaps sooner.

The Rev. Margaret Court, watching from the Royal Box, was more than a casual bystander.

Going forward, there will be much discussion about Serena equaling Court's 24 majors.

"No, not for me. I've learned a lot about 22," Serena said. "I learned not to get involved in those debates and conversations. I just learned to just play tennis. That's what I do best."