It took her seven months and 17 days, but at long last, 2014's Serena Williams looks familiar.
Just in time for the U.S. Open, Serena found her A-game on Sunday in the final of the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati. The No. 1 player in the world, who has looked like anything but herself all too often this season, defeated an in-form Ana Ivanovic 6-4, 6-1 in just over an hour.
It was, incredibly, Serena's first title in Cincinnati, a prestigious U.S. Open warm-up tournament.
The straightforward victory, and particularly the confidence she seemed to take from it, puts her back into the driver's seat as the tour gets ready to head to Flushing Meadows.
According to Joe Kay of the Associated Press (via U.S. News & World Report), Serena was incredibly pleased with her form. "Definitely my best performance of the summer," she said.
"This is definitely a level that can take me to the (U.S. Open) title. I still have a lot of work to do. It's definitely a better level than I've played all year, to be honest."
It's a rare occasion for Serena to go into a tournament and not be considered the favorite, but 2014 had certainly raised some legitimate doubts.
Although she has won five tournaments this year and never relinquished her top ranking, she's looked much more human than she has in the past few years, and she's been especially vulnerable physically and mentally at the majors.
A subpar Serena started off the year losing to Ivanovic in the fourth round of the Australian Open. She then lost to the Frenchwoman Alize Cornet in the semifinals of Dubai, and after seemingly getting back on track with a big-time win at the Sony Open in Miami, she lost in the second round at the Family Circle Cup in Charleston to No. 78 Jana Cepelova.
The 17-time major champion continued to battle her demons throughout the spring and ended up losing in the second round of the French Open to Garbine Muguruza and the fourth round of Wimbledon to Cornet, once again.
Serena made headlines at Wimbledon not only for her loss in singles, but also for her bizarre behavior in her doubles match with sister Venus. Dizzy and clearly unwell, Serena ended up pulling out of their second-round doubles match after just three games. She said she was suffering from a viral illness and pulled out of a small clay-court tournament in Sweden that she was scheduled to play.
With so many question marks surrounding her health and form, nobody knew what to expect from Serena this summer.
She came out in Stanford still a bit shaky but was able to battle through some tough matches to win the title. She nearly did the same thing in Montreal the following week, winning despite not playing her best until she fell to Venus in the semifinals.
While her road wasn't much easier this time around, Serena seemed more ready for the tests this week. Her win in Cincinnati made her the winner of the U.S. Open Series.
Courtney Nguyen of SI.com says that Serena's improved form can be boiled down to one stroke: her serve.
It all begins with Williams' serve. The shot hasn't been reliable for her throughout the summer—or this year for that matter—but it all came together this week. She was hitting the low 120s on the radar gun and mixing up her serves well. Against Ivanovic, she hit 12 aces as opposed to three double-faults. That loosened her up on return games and off the ground. She finished with 26 winners and 13 unforced errors.
This season won't be a success for Serena unless she wins a major, and the U.S. Open is her last chance to do that. At this point in her career, the 32-year-old is chasing history.
After she won the French Open and U.S. Open last year to get to 17 majors, it seemed like it was inevitable that she would catch Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova at 18 sooner rather than later. After her struggles this season, nothing felt certain.
But now, she's looking as dangerous as ever. That's good, because the rest of the WTA is looking good these days too. Maria Sharapova is as competitive as ever, former No. 1s Caroline Wozniacki and Ivanovic have found their games again, and younger players such as Eugenie Bouchard and Simona Halep are coming on strong.
Still, when she's at her best, nobody can beat Serena. That's bad news for the rest of the field—and for history—at the U.S. Open.