NEW YORK -- By the time Serena Williams pulled into New York for the US Open, she'd been trying to move into a tie with Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert for the third-most Grand Slam singles titles in the Open era for a year.
But after falling out of the Australian Open, then the French Open, then Wimbledon shockingly early, Williams finally decided it was a self-paradox that was killing her: The same blast-furnace desire that had driven her to the brink of achieving more tennis immortality was now preventing her from taking this historic next step.
And so, long before her final Sunday against Caroline Wozniacki, Williams adjusted.
While everyone else kept trying to put her career in context in anticipation of Sunday's win -- including Evert, who unhesitatingly calls Williams the best female tennis player ever, even if Steffi Graf (22) or Margaret Court (24) has more Slam titles -- Williams spent the weeks leading up to this US Open chopping down how much it meant to her to finally get Grand Slam No. 18.
In private moments, Williams said, she had the same talk over and over with herself the past eight weeks or so about the sweep of her career: "Serena, you've done everything you needed to do. Just have fun and enjoy yourself."
Fun she had Sunday afternoon after a straight-sets triumph over Wozniacki to match the legends.
In her public utterances, her take was the same. A couple of days before Sunday's match with Wozniacki, Williams laughed and said, "It's almost a joke for me because I have done little to no winning in the majors [this year]. So I thought, take it as a joke: 'Oh, my God, I'm past the fourth round. Woo! ... I better play doubles just in case I don't make it past the second round. At least I have a backup plan.' And I think that definitely has been able to help me to relax as well.
"I tend to get a little stressed out."
Williams was just engaging in one of those mind tricks that athletes sometimes play on themselves. And she wasn't always able to maintain it.
At other moments, the rapacious Serena, the limelight-loving Serena, the Serena who wasn't about to let this chance slip by and have to go through all this again until the 2015 Australian Open in January, would peek through.
And never more so than when someone asked Williams, a notorious sore loser, whether she thought she could name all the people she's lost to since turning pro in 1995.
"Oh, yeah," Williams said. "Oh, yeah."
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If you think about it, Williams' angst about tying Evert and Navratilova's record despite all she has accomplished makes perfect sense.
The context question that's been swirling around her for months -- where does Serena rank among the greatest of all time? -- is really the last important one left to answer in her career.
And as Navratilova, who played singles until age 38, says, "Everything just gets harder. There are more ebbs and flows. And the lows are lower."
The good news for Williams is her all-time rank isn't likely to hinge on whether she goes on to surpass Court or Graf or Helen Wills Moody's (19) superior major title totals. Evert thinks Williams could catch Graf, at minimum, although Serena will turn 33 on Sept. 26 and is already the oldest woman ever to hold the No. 1 ranking.
"I feel she can keep going," Evert says. "There's no reason why she can't reach Steffi. ... She can win three or four more for sure, in my mind, if she stays healthy, stays engaged in the sport and stays motivated. And I think she has a real sense of history now, which has changed. I think at the beginning of her career she didn't."
Some folks have argued it's curious that Court is largely absent from the greatest-of-all-time discussions, but the explanation is easy: As great an athlete as Court was for her time -- she stood 5-foot-9 and had such a terrific serve that her nickname on tour was "The Arm" -- Williams beats Court and just about every other contender for best ever when it comes to the eyeball test.
That -- even more than stats or her realistic shot of winning even more Slam titles -- is why Williams' best-ever candidacy is so strong.
Serena is more powerful than Graf, more athletic than Evert, and she has been able to sustain the No. 1 ranking and individual excellence at the majors at a later age than Navratilova, although Navratilova played singles to age 38 and held the top ranking over 100 weeks more than Williams has so far.
Graf's candidacy for best ever is also colored by the fact that her reign coincided with a time on the tour when Monica Seles, her most dangerous rival, was stabbed by a fan and left.
Serena, in contrast, has had to outlast or overcome challenges from myriad flanks: Her sister Venus, Martina Hingis, Justine Henin, Kim Clijsters, Lindsay Davenport and Jennifer Capriati -- all of whom won multiple Grand Slam titles -- and now, today's generation of rising stars.
Former world No. 1 Tracy Austin says, "I can't think of anybody -- even Roger Federer -- who holds the outcome on their racket more in every match than Serena."
"I look at Graf's numbers and I look at what happened to Seles, and I think, 'Wow, Steffi is great. But that [Seles' disappearance] is what padded her 22,'" says ESPN analyst Pam Shriver, a former US Open singles finalist herself who won 21 Grand Slam doubles titles with Navratilova.
Shriver --volunteering that her doubles past potentially "makes me biased" -- insists that any best-ever talk should include a look at a player's "whole body of work -- singles, doubles, mixed doubles, Olympic medals." Using that criteria, Shriver says, "I'd put Serena and Martina in front of Steffi. Steffi won her first title in '87 and won her last in 1999. Serena won her first in '99 [at age 17 at the U.S. Open]. So far for Serena, that's a 15-year gap between your first and your last. Which also measures greatness: that ability to do it over time.
"To me, Serena's longevity is one of those are-you-kidding-me stats," Shriver says, laughing, "same as that one about Chrissie having won at least one Grand Slam title for 13 consecutive years. I mean, 13 straight years? Are you kidding me?"
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Although Navratilova has been gracious about Williams moving onto the 18-title plateau alongside her and Evert, she has also been frank when asked to scan the history of the game and nominate someone whose serve has ever rivaled the bombs that Williams regularly strikes at faster than 120 mph. Navratilova has smiled and suggested her own serve was second-best.
Hingis, who was named after Navratilova, says she doesn't buy the argument that if Navratilova and Evert played with the more high-tech equipment that modern players do -- or vice versa, if Serena were forced to go back in time and play with the wood rackets Evert and Navratilova did -- the gap between them would appreciably shrink.
"No, I don't think that, because I think a true champion would adjust," Hingis says. Laughing now, Hingis adds: "I think if you gave Serena a wood racket, she'd probably break it. Or the ball would go right through the other person's strings."
Hingis, who was always considered one of the smartest players ever, says every great has had something their own that distinguished them. What comes to mind with Serena? Hingis quickly answers, "Her will. And she got smarter. And she serves better than everyone. Really, she just kills every shot. And it's just difficult to stay with her, because her serve and return of serve is also so good. It's hard to even get into the point. You have to just try to be smart about every shot, every point you play against her. And it's not easy."
Both Evert and Navratilova enjoyed stunning stretches of near invincibility during their careers even more than Serena has -- although for different reasons.
One of Evert's early nicknames (besides "Chris America") was the "Ice Maiden." Her metronomic consistency was attributed to her court savvy, the vise-grip command she had on her emotions and her ability to strike terrific pinpoint shots under pressure. (Her running backhand winner for the '85 French Open broke her long personal drought of being unable to beat Navratilova at the Slams. And at the raucous victory party that night in Paris, Evert's longtime agent drank champagne from her high-heeled shoe.)
Navratilova, like Serena, was the pre-eminent power player of her time, although Navratilova stood just 5-foot-8 and a slight 140 pounds or so at her peak -- not much bigger than Evert and laughably unimposing by today's standards.
But from 1982 through 1986, Navratilova won a stunning 428 of 442 singles matches, a 96.8 winning percentage. In 1983, she went an astonishing 86-1. Although she and Williams are both dedicated doubles players, Navratilova has better stats when it comes to career singles titles (167 to 62 for Williams), total weeks at No. 1 (332 to 204) and Slam doubles titles (31 women's and 10 mixed titles to Serena's 13 and 2).
If you ask Richard Williams, Venus and Serena's father, how he knew way back when his daughters were young that Serena would not only eclipse her older sister Venus but indeed be in contention for the title of best ever, he said it was because he figured, "Serena would have Venus to show her the way."
Venus's generosity of spirit and support -- not just her on-court success -- have been enormous factors in Serena's career. And yet, among the things that distinguish Serena even from Venus is Serena has never seemed as conflicted about beating Venus as Venus has been. The electric night that Venus beat Serena in the first prime-time women's final in US Open history, back when their head-to-head matchups still felt new, Venus slung an arm around her kid sister's shoulder when it was over and whispered in her ear, "Let's get out of here."
The debate over whether Serena is the best ever is likely to heat up now that she's tied Evert and Navratilova. But look at it this way: She may also have a long time to play.
Williams' victory over Wozniacki was her third straight Open title and sixth overall -- tying her with Evert in that column, too. But to Hingis, who is long retired in singles but played in doubles here, Williams' latest record is about more than that.
Reaching back now beyond Evert and Navratilova and all the way back to Billie Jean King, the woman who created what's become the WTA Tour, Hingis said, "Every No. 1 kind of carries on the dream. I think everybody has dreams and tries to grab those. I think whether it was me or Martina or Serena or Chris, the dreams are always there. We were always going in that direction to be able to get them. They were real. It wasn't like trying to catch a star, right? They became reality.
"You're like, 'For a time there, anyway, I was the best in the world.'
"I've been the best."
Williams has so far acted as though it's unimportant for her to answer the question of where she'd put herself in the discussion of best ever. Maybe at moments like that, she's still playing that mind trick on herself all over again. The other day she said, "Everything is extra now."
But in less guarded moments, Williams contradicted herself. When someone asked her earlier in the US Open how important was it to her to finally get to the second round of a Grand Slam this year, Williams deadpanned, "I mean, I can't believe I'm in the second week. It's like a dream come true for me at this point."
"I'm being sarcastic," Williams said, laughing.
She's still determined to add to her argument for best ever.
And not even close to being done yet.