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The ball skidded off the grass of Centre Court at a sharp angle, a clean winner had it been hit against almost any other player. But Serena Williams was in thundering pursuit. It was late in the first set of the Wimbledon final last Saturday, and Williams and her opponent, Vera Zvonareva, had each held serve through the first seven games. This was a break point, though, and damned if Williams was going to lose it.
Drawing back her racket as she ran, Williams relied on her muscular lower body to get her to the ball in time. She then relied on her muscular upper body, turning her shoulders, cocking her right arm and pasting the ball up the line and beyond Zvonareva's outstretched racket—as cold-blooded a running forehand as you could hope to see. The shot brought to bear all of Williams's many gifts, some of them Jehovah-given, others the result of hard work: speed, strength, agility, execution, accuracy and, not least, guts.
As she hit the ball, Williams let loose her signature grunt, EEEEEE-yaaaahh! a bellicose shriek that starts deep in her belly. After admiring her handiwork, she flexed her left arm, kicked up a leg and dropped to a knee.
The crowd, many of them British gentry—men in blazers and women in jelly bean--colored sundresses—froze. Was this or was this not the Ladies' Championships? Eventually they collected themselves, giggling and groaning, so distracted by Williams's unconventional antics that they'd forgotten the brilliant shotmaking that had occasioned her celebration.
There, in a single sequence, is the tennis career of 28-year-old Serena Williams. Time and again her brilliant play has been obscured by her extravagant theatrics and controversial behavior. That can be blamed partly on tennis's stodginess, partly on Williams's inability to get out of her own way. But she doesn't care. She crashed the WTA cotillion on her own terms, and more than a decade later, well, that's still how she rolls.
That running forehand? It broke Zvonareva, literally and figuratively. The Russian mustered just two more games the rest of the afternoon in a 6--3, 6--2 defeat. Williams walked off with her fourth Wimbledon singles trophy and 13th career Grand Slam singles title. She solidified her No. 1 ranking. She put still more distance between herself and her older sister, Venus—who lost in the quarterfinals to the 82nd-ranked player—further proof that the Williamses are not a monolith. Beyond that, Serena demonstrated yet again that there has never been a better female player. Yes, that's right. Strip away the nonsense and the breaches of etiquette and there's only this: Serena Williams is the GOAT, the Greatest of All Time.
Wait—how can that be? Doesn't Williams still trail five players—Margaret Smith Court (24), Steffi Graf (22), Helen Wills Moody (19), Chris Evert (18) and Martina Navratilova (18)—in major singles titles, the usual benchmark for excellence? Yes, but Williams plays in a far more competitive and demanding era. (Plus, none of the others had to play her sister in a Grand Slam final.) She has also won 12 major women's doubles titles, two major mixed doubles titles and two Olympic women's doubles gold medals. She has earned Grand Slam titles on all surfaces. She has been winning them since she was 17.
But numbers are only part of the discussion. The most important stroke in tennis is the serve, and Williams's is the most fearsome in women's history, an assertion echoed by everyone from Navratilova to Lindsay Davenport. Serena stands at the service line, tosses the ball high, rocks back on her right heel, uncoils her 5' 10" frame and delivers a thunderbolt that not only travels as fast as 125 mph but is also impeccably placed and often garnished with spin. Over the last two weeks she set the Wimbledon women's record with 89 aces. The next closest competitor had 30.
While Williams is known for sending heat-seeking missiles off both flanks—her forehand is more explosive, her backhand steadier, but both provide an ample supply of winners—her game is about more than aggression. Asked what made Serena such a tough opponent, Zvonareva remarked, "You take more risks because you know she's such a great mover and can play great defense." Wait, she plays defense, too? Little wonder Billie Jean King gushed last week that Serena is "the best athlete we've ever had."
Irreverent as it sounds, if you matched tennis's female legends head-to-head—all at their best, with identical equipment—Williams wouldn't just beat the others; she would crush them. Graf's scythelike slice backhand? Williams would bend her knees and tee off on it. Evert's consistency? Serena would simply overpower Chrissie. Navratilova's attacking game? Williams would whistle returns by the peerless serve-and-volleyer before she got to net. Plus, there has never been a player of Williams's mental toughness, a refusal to lose that kicks in even in emotional matches against Venus, her sister and best friend. "The thought of having to play her," says two-time U.S. Open champion Tracy Austin, "is honestly kind of scary."