In front of a packed crowd on Saturday evening in Melbourne, Australia, battling both an illness and the No. 2 player in the world, Serena Williams won her sixth Australian Open title, 6-3, 7-6(5). This was the 19th major title of her career, and it moved her a mere three Grand Slams away from tying Steffi Graf atop the list of major winners.
There are a lot of things responsible for this Slam victory—her serve, her speed, her hard work, her competitive fire. But nothing was as crucial to this particular victory as Serena's composure.
Serving at 6-5 in the second-set tiebreaker against an incredibly in-form Maria Sharapova, Serena hit a serve out wide on championship point. It was an ace. She dropped her racket, freeing herself up to celebrate her legendary feat.
Then Alison Hughes, the umpire, made an unwelcome announcement: Let.
Serena's serve had grazed the net on the way over, so suddenly she had to compose herself all over again. Instead of having a 19th Slam, she had to serve once more. Many would have been rattled, perhaps irreparably, but not Serena—at least not on this particular day.
She picked up her racket, took a deep breath and hit the exact same serve out wide. This time the ace comfortably cleared the net.
With that ace—her 18th of the match—Serena, 33, defeated Sharapova, 27, to win the Australian Open for the first time since 2010. She also broke her tie with Chrissie Evert and Martina Navratilova and moved into second place all by herself on the list of major winners in the Open era.
Composure hasn't always been Serena's biggest strength—we've seen her lose it in big moments in Grand Slams before, most notably in the U.S. Open semifinal against Kim Clijsters in 2009 and the U.S. Open final against Sam Stosur in 2011. But this time, no matter what the match threw at her, she picked up her racket, took a deep breath and got immediately back to business.
Matt Zemek of Bloguin's Attacking the Net broke down how Serena overcame challenge after challenge to get this win:
On Saturday, despite the occasional error in a big moment, Serena was—if not at her absolute best—close enough to her highest level to deny Sharapova once again. Whenever trouble loomed, whenever the flow of the match extended an invitation to succumb to pressure, Serena—being the champion she is—always responded the right way.
She responded to the scoreboard. She responded to the hindrance call. She responded to the let on championship point. She responded, most of all, to each and every brassy, steely, tough-as-nails service hold from Sharapova in that classic second set.
The second set was indeed a classic, especially by Serena vs. Sharapova standards. After all, Sharapova's woes against Serena have been well-documented. The five-time major champion hasn't beaten Serena in over a decade, losing 15 (now 16) straight in that time period. It's a struggle for her merely to win games against Serena.
But Sharapova is a ruthless competitor, and she brought her absolute best in the second set.
Sharapova forced Serena to raise her level at every turn, and just like she did all tournament, Serena obliged. It wasn't always easy—she particularly had to dig deep to overcome charges by future stars Elina Svitolina, Garbine Muguruza and Madison Keys—but nobody ever said that greatness was a walk in the park.
Now, 16 years after winning the first Slam of her career at the age of 17, Serena has become only the second woman in the Open era to win her 19th.
In a gracious and passionate speech on court after accepting her trophy, Serena talked about what it felt like to accomplish such great things after her humble beginnings, as reported by Nick McCarvel of USA Today:
Standing here with 19 championships is something I never thought would happen. I went on the court with a ball and a racket and a hope. It's inspiring for those of you out there who want to be something or for whatever you want to do when you grow up. You never know who you're going to inspire; so I'm so honored.
Just a couple of years ago, as Serena's tennis mileage began to catch up to her, it seemed Graf's Slam record of 22 was impossible to catch. There seemed to be hope that she could catch Navratilova and Evert at 18, but anything beyond that was unfathomable for an aging athlete like Serena, despite her mind-boggling talent.
Now, despite her advanced age of 33, with the way Serena is playing it seems like almost a foregone conclusion that she will reach—and possibly surpass—Graf's record. After all, despite the great current state of the WTA, there is no other top player who is a threat to beat Serena on a regular basis.
Plus, Serena only needs three more Slams to reach Graf, and in four of the last six years, she has won two Slams per year.
One of the years she didn't win two Slams was 2011, when she was recovering from her foot injury and then suffered from a blood clot and pulmonary embolism and missed the first two Slams of the year. The other was last year, when she became admittedly tight in her quest to reach No. 18 and fell abnormally early at the Australian Open, the French Open and Wimbledon.
But midway through last year, she decided to stop putting pressure on herself and to just relax.
"My theory now is to relax and play the match as best as I can. When I step on the court and hear the announcer, I don’t have to win anymore. I can just relax and have fun," she said, as reported by Reem Abulleil of Sport 360.
Well, that mentality seems to be working. Since Serena has relaxed, she has won two Slams in a row.
Watch out, Steffi. Serena is coming for you.