At the 2010 Australian Open the tennis salon discussed the sport's "winningest" male player, Roger Federer, and marveled at the successful "unretirement" of Justine Henin, but no one could come up with a single word that adequately captured Serena Williams's almost pathological refusal to lose. The fallback clichés—tenacious, persistent, dogged—don't come close to doing it justice.
For all of Williams's power and athleticism, it's her ... well, whatever word best depicts her will to win... that is her true gift. And it was on vivid display in Melbourne. Whenever matches tightened, Williams seemed to flip a switch and turn on her best tennis. Whenever all looked dire—say, down a set and 4--0 to Victoria Azarenka of Belarus in the quarterfinals—Williams fashioned an escape route. Whenever her body started to flag, she found a surge of energy. Anything to avoid leaving the court a loser. Her secret? She shrugs. "If I lose," she said, "I'm going out hard."
Facing her old rival Henin in last Saturday night's final, Williams won the first set but lost the second, and when she was down double break point early in the third, she had no momentum. So Williams inhaled, stepped to the line and clubbed a 122-mph ace. She followed that with a swinging forehand volley that few other players would have had the guts to try, much less the skill to execute. Crisis averted. Williams won five of the next six games and rolled to her 12th major singles title, taking another step toward that Graf-Evert-Navratilova suite.
"She's just an unbelievable fighter," lamented Henin.
Oracene Price explains her daughter's unshakable will this way: "I think it's innate. It's like when you're sleeping and dream that someone is holding you down. Do you quit or do you keep trying to get up? Serena's not one to back down."
Of course this doesn't always serve her so well. At the U.S. Open last September, Williams took issue with a foot-fault call and let loose a string of asterisks and ampersands, threatened the lineswoman with asphyxiation by tennis ball and earned an $82,500 fine and two years' probation from the Grand Slam Committee. Had it been up to some other tennis administrators, Williams would not have been allowed to defend her title in Australia.
Regardless, Williams was on her best behavior Down Under. She opened her mouth on court only to sing Green Day songs to herself for motivation. She took pains to praise her opponents, particularly her semifinal foe, Li Na of China, whose success in Melbourne (along with that of fellow semifinalist Zheng Jie) might cement the tennis boom in Asia. "It was important for me that some good come out [of the U.S. Open episode]," said Serena, who also teamed with her sister Venus to take the Aussie doubles championship. "That people see I'm not really like that."
Williams's only lapse in etiquette was in beating Henin and thereby abridging the tournament's most compelling plot line. In the spring of 2008 Henin was ranked No. 1 but, suffering from an absence of passion, abruptly retired. Barely touching her rackets, she spent the next 18 months traveling, reading and even singing on a European reality show. Her flame rekindled, she made a smashing return in the first Grand Slam event of her comeback, beating four members of the top 30.
In some respects it was as though she'd never left. Despite her elfin physique, Henin still zings the ball beautifully off both wings, possesses the most complete game on the women's side and fights harder than any player this side of Serena. On a tour in which versatile games and mental fitness are in short supply, Henin's return came not a moment too soon.
But in other respects Henin was unrecognizable from her old self. Known for her brutal intensity and opaque personality during Career 1.0, Henin now smiles abundantly and speaks candidly about her "spiritual journey," about "breathing the air differently" and about "knowing myself better." Justine Zen-in, as it were. "To stop two years ago and to come back, I think it's been two of the best decisions I took in my life," she said. "I am out of this bubble, and my motivation is back." Whew for that.