Defining a Champion: The Top 10 Most Important Wins of Serena Williams' Career

Dearl NelsonContributor IIINovember 19, 2012

Defining a Champion: The Top 10 Most Important Wins of Serena Williams' Career

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    In every sport, there are varying types of champions. Some athletes become champions because of their perseverance and dedication to personal improvement, or as some call it, having "heart." Some reach champion status because of sheer physical superiority to their competitors, while other champions maintain a mental toughness, unwavering focus and confidence that propels them to victory.

    Sometimes, however, a champion surfaces who embodies all of these characteristics. This is the case with Serena Williams and her domination of women's tennis

    No matter how a champion wins, it is certainly never credited to luck. It takes preparation, determination and execution on the biggest stages in the world. These are 10 matches that best define Serena Williams as a true champion. 

No. 10: 2002 Wimbledon—Serena Defeats Venus 7–6(7–4), 6–3

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    In 2002, Venus Williams was the two-time defending champion at Wimbledon. It would also be the last year that she would hold more Grand Slam titles than her baby sister. Serena had just won her second Grand Slam title at the 2002 French Open (defeating Venus), and the confidence we identify with Serena today was just starting to truly flourish.

    The 7-6, 6-3 victory over her sister was Serena's first Wimbledon title, and the second Grand Slam in her popularly dubbed "Serena Slam." Furthermore, Serena would claim the World No. 1 ranking for the first time after winning Wimbledon in 2002.

No. 9: 1999 Indian Wells—Serena Defeats Steffi Graf 6-3, 3-6, 7-5

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    Although this was not a Grand Slam title, 18-year-old Serena's victory over legendary Steffi Graf was quite an accomplishment and would foreshadow her first U.S. Open title later that same year. Although Graf was at the tail end of her career, she was playing good tennis (and actually won the French Open a few weeks later).

    This match was significant in Serena's development with mental toughness. She would win the first set, only to lose the second, and find herself at 5-5 in the third set with the greatest player at that time. The ability to focus and her will to win would earn her the next two games, the tournament title and an unforgettable victory over a true legend. 

No. 8: 2005 Australian Open Semifinal—Serena Defeats M. Sharapova 2-6, 7-5, 8-6

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    In terms of tennis, 2004 was not a memorable year for Serena Williams. She was plagued with injury and perhaps a lack of motivation. Most significantly, a new rival had emerged and defeated Serena twice (2004 Wimbledon final, 2004 year-end championship).

    The young blonde-haired, blue-eyed beauty would become the highest-grossing female athlete (including endorsement deals) simply because of her early victories over Serena. 

    However, like a true champion Serena would work hard in the offseason and refocus her efforts to get to the top. 2004 would be the last time that Maria Sharapova would defeat Serena Williams to date. The 2005 Australian Open semifinal would be Serena's first victory in a streak that has now spanned nearly eight years.

    After losing the first set in convincing fashion, and finding herself behind in the second set, Serena would save three match points and eventually earn the victory in a memorable third set. 

No. 7: 2001 Indian Wells Final—Serena Defeats Kim Clijsters 4-6, 6-4. 6-2

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    The issue of race had always been the elephant in the room when it came to the Williams sisters. Although both Williams are extremely patriotic, and even initially played more U.S.-based tournaments to support the growth and popularity of the sport in the U.S., they have often been met with cold and even hostile reactions from the crowds, even at home.

    While most players enjoy the support and encouragement of their hometown crowds, the Williams sisters have too frequently been taken for granted and under appreciated in the U.S. It's hard to argue that race does not play a part in this isolated issue involving both Williams Sisters. 

    In 2001, at Indian Wells, California (Serena Williams grew up playing tennis less than two hours away), Serena would meet one of the most hostile crowds in tennis history.

    Angry over a canceled semifinal match between Venus and Serena because of an injury sustained by Venus the day before, the crowd would boo, chant and whistle at not only Serena on court, but Richard Williams and Venus in the stands.

    Serena stated that she was called a "nigger" and other racial slurs by several people throughout the crowd. The crowd would cheer her errors and double-faults, and instead encourage Belgian newcomer Kim Clijsters. Serena WIlliams was only a 20-year-old girl, defenseless in a situation that was quickly spiraling out of control.

    The first set was won by Clijsters. The crowd would reward the foreigner with a standing ovation for defeating Serena 6-4.

    Yet, in true champion form, the youthful Serena would somehow block out the distractions of the surrounding danger and focus on sending her feelings back to the crowd with a victory. Suddenly her serve was back on, and her ground strokes were hitting every corner of the court.

    After her victory, Serena would fall into the arms of her father and protector Richard Williams, and later break down and cry in the press conference. It was the last time either Williams sister stepped foot on the courts of Indian Wells.

    However, Serena would learn early on that she would have to work even harder than her white counterparts just to receive the same respect as a champion, and for the next 11 years she did just that. 

No. 6: 2012 U.S. Open Final—Serena Defeats Victoria Azarenka 6-2, 2-6, 7-5

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    Serena was the clear favorite in the championship match of the 2012 U.S. Open, but she would have to survive a great scare and an extremely strong effort by Victoria Azarenka (the reigning Australian Open champion) to win 6-2, 2-6, 7-5. 

    This match was significant because it showcased a 30-plus Serena Williams on what many may consider the tail end of her career and a newcomer who will undoubtedly be a Hall of Famer as well. Williams and Azarenka had been the best hard-court players of the 2012 season, and the matchup was one to remember.

    It was highlighted by some of the best serving we have seen from Serena Williams, and when you have the best serve ever in women's tennis, it's usually enough to win.

    This victory would be Serena's fourth U.S. Open title, and another win (now countless) over the player holding the No. 1 ranking. 

No. 5: 2002 French Open Final—Serena Defeats Venus 7-5, 6-3

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    American sweetheart Jennifer Capriati was the defending champion at Roland Garros in 2002, but she lost to Serena Williams in the semifinals in what was developing into an intriguing rivalry.

    However, Serena would have to defeat perhaps the No. 1 rival of her career to win the title—her older sister. Serena defeated Venus to win her first, and so far only, French Open title. This was also her first step towards completing "The Serena Slam" that spanned 2002-2003. She would also jump to a top-three ranking for the first time heading into Wimbledon. 

No. 4: 2012 Olympic Gold Medal Match—Serena Defeats Maria Sharapova 6-0, 6-1

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    The Olympic Games have not always been of the utmost importance to tennis players. However, for Serena and Venus Williams, the Olympics have always been a special priority and a true chance to showcase their tremendous dominance in women's tennis.

    Although Serena held three Olympic gold medals in doubles, coming into the 2012 Olympics she still had yet to claim the gold medal in singles. By winning the match ("winning" is an understatement for the way Serena utterly crushed Sharapova in this match), she would complete the "Career Golden Slam." This of course involves holding all four Grand Slam titles in a career, along with an Olympic gold medal in singles. The Olympic gold in 2012 became yet another very impressive title on Serena's resume.

    Williams served three aces in the opening game and rarely relented, beating an overmatched Maria Sharapova 6-0, 6-1 in the final in only 62 minutes.  

#3: 2003 Australian Open Final—Serena Defeats Venus 7-6, 3-6, 6-4

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    Serena Williams defeated her sister Venus in the final in three tough sets to win her fourth consecutive Grand Slam title and hold all four Grand Slam titles at once.

    It was Serena's fifth career Grand Slam title, her fourth in a row (also her fourth defeat of sister Venus) and her first-ever Australian Open title. The victory would complete the Career Grand Slam for Williams, as well as the popularly dubbed "Serena Slam" (in which she won four consecutive Slams).

No. 2: 1999 U.S. Open Final—Serena Defeats Martina Hingis 6–3, 7–6

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    The 1999 U.S. Open victory was probably the first and last time that her triumph came as a surprise. This was Williams' first Grand Slam singles title and her first U.S. Open singles title. She shocked the tennis world by winning a Grand Slam before her older sister Venus. 

    In 1997, a teenage Venus Williams made the U.S. Open Final (in her first appearance) but lost to rival Hingis. Two years later, Serena would get revenge for the Williams clan with a decisive straight-set win. Winning a Grand Slam in the 1990s would also make her a champion in three different decades, and it was to be the starting point of an impressive career.

No. 1: 2010 Australian Open Final—Serena Defeats Justine Henin 6–4, 3–6, 6–2

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    In tennis, every generation has a "top player." Players such as Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova and Steffi Graf endured fierce rivalries throughout their respective careers, yet each was a dominant player who separated themselves as being superior to even the best players in their generations—Evert in the 1970's, Navratilova in the 1980's, and Graf in the 1990's. 
    In the late 1990's and early 2000's, the leader of the next generation was a bit of a toss up. Would it be Martina Hingis the teen-phenom, or perhaps the hard hitting Lindsay Davenport, or the crowd favorite Kim Clijsters, the athletic and powerful Venus Williams, or the come-back kid Jennifer Capriati? Each had won Grand Slam titles, held the No. 1 ranking and taken their sport to new levels of fitness and conditioning. However, the fiercest rivalry perhaps developed between Serena Williams and Justine Henin. 
    Henin and Williams were entangled in a "cheating-controversy" that resulted in Serena losing a semifinal match at the French Open. Serena would also lose to Justine in three consecutive Grand Slam Quarterfinal match-ups in 2007.
    At the time of their 2010 Australian Open Final, Serena would lead the overall head-to-head 7-6, however, Justine owned the head-to-head at Grand Slam tournaments with a 4-2 win ratio.
    Although both Champions spoke highly of each other and showed tremendous respect for their opponents talent, the tension in Melbourne was thick—after all, although they had battled 13 times, they had never played each other in the Final of a Grand Slam. 
    Both players showed impressive tennis. However, Serena would win both the mental and physical battle on the court and prove her unrelenting domination over women's professional tennis. No longer could their be an argument about who is the best player of this generation. With a 12th Grand Slam win (15 as of 2012), Serena proved to be the ultimate Champion of her time.