Williams the Conquerors
Sisters Roar Into Wimbledon Final As Serena Claims No. 1 Ranking
By Rachel Nichols
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 5, 2002; Page D01
WIMBLEDON, England, July 4 -- Serena Williams might have announced earlier this week she is jaded at the grand old age of 20, but there is jaded and then there is apathetic, and in truth, Williams is probably neither.
After all, by the time she finished simply blitzing through talented Frenchwoman Amelie Mauresmo, 6-2, 6-1, to advance to her first Wimbledon final today, she had unleashed a smile that practically stretched past her ears, and when someone courtside brought up her sister Venus's earlier 6-3, 6-2 semifinal victory over Justine Henin, she began to bounce up and down.
But it was when a WTA Tour official said, "and you know you're No. 1 now, right?" that Serena lost the ability to breathe for a moment, only regaining it in time to answer: "No. No. You're joking right? You're sure? Have you done the math?
"I've waited my whole life for this," she said.
And then she began to cry.
"No, not jaded at all," she said later, after she had collected herself, after she had a moment to let it all sink in. Stepping onto the court, Serena had already known a victory would complete an all-Williams final, but that has now been the endgame of three of the last four Grand Slams. And while the frequency of the achievement only makes it more staggering, the novelty value has faded.
There is nothing worn about the top ranking, though, especially since coming into the tournament -- it had belonged to Venus. The WTA's rankings are calculated from points players accrue with each match they win over a 52-week period, and while No. 1 is not always the most accurate indicator of who is playing the best tennis at any particular moment, it does say without question that for the aggregate of exactly the last year, there was no one better. Not even your big sister.
"I'm still waiting for the catch," said Serena, only the 11th woman to reach No. 1 since the system began in 1975. "There's always a catch, but I guess there's not. I'm very happy right now. I've worked hard. I've worked really hard. I deserve it. I really do."
There has been the time in the gym, whittling the extra weight from her already-chiseled physique. There has been time on the practice court, draining the errors from her groundstrokes. But most of all, there has been the quiet time, time with her own brain, which never used to be able to squeeze out the distractions, fears and emotions that come with playing a professional sport at the highest level.
Sure, Serena had won the U.S. Open in 1999, but she was only 17 then, almost too young to know better. And in the two years afterward, she saw her ranking slide up and down the top 10 as if on rollers, never getting past No. 4. Venus started to make the climb toward No. 1, racking up a sackful of major titles along the way, but Serena didn't even make another final of a Grand Slam until the 2001 U.S. Open.
Often, she blamed her failures in big matches on ailments like food poisoning or cramping. When she was healthy, it was her emotions that tripped her. "I'm a very sensitive person," she said today, and indeed, the more pressure that swarmed the court, the more Serena's shots tended to explode off her racket, often missing their marks by yards.
"You can tell the difference between me and Venus on the courts because I'm way more emotional. I pump my fists more, I scream more," she said. "I think in the past, it's affected me, because I would get down on myself. But now, whatever happens, I don't get down on myself anymore. I just keep my head up."
The change was gradual. Serena not only buckled down off the court, putting less of a priority on her social life, she buckled down on it, channeling her passion enough to beat Venus and then Jennifer Capriati on her way to a key title in Miami this spring. She then went on to reach the final in Berlin, win in Rome and win the French Open -- against Venus -- and since she's arrived in England she's been nothing but ravenous.
By the time she played Mauresmo today, she was simply the best player on the grounds. Mauresmo might have run Capriati out of the tournament in straight sets on Wednesday, but today she never even unfurled her game as Serena sent shot after domineering shot hurtling over the net. By the end of the match, it almost seemed charitable the way Serena allowed Mauresmo to win her first two service games, as from that point on, Serena won 11 of the other 12 games the pair played.
"She was playing very well, too good, I could do nothing. I tried a few things, but I just couldn't do anything," said Mauresmo. When asked what she liked about her game today she said "nothing, really."
It was a total surrender, both physical and verbal, except for the one little inch many of the top players seem reluctant to give when it comes to Venus and Serena: While acknowledging that the Williamses are "better than everybody else," Mauresmo couldn't help also saying that for the sisters to meet in the final "to me, I think it's a little bit sad for women's tennis. . . . I think people are going to get bored by it. I'm not counting how many people since yesterday told me, 'We don't want a Williams final.' "
The statement rang with the same kind of echo as Capriati's theory at the French Open that if injured players Martina Hingis and Lindsay Davenport were healthy, the sisters would not have reached No. 1 and 2. Still, even to the Williamses themselves, the situation is becoming familiar -- if not at all boring.
"I think it's good for tennis. I think it's good for Serena and me more than anything," Venus said, and certainly after her match with Henin today she seemed positively giddy, blowing kisses to the crowd. She had fallen behind, 0-2, in the first set but quickly won the next three games, and while her serves were not as sharp as they had been at times in this tournament, her strokes were well-placed and well-powered.
It might have been the most dominating match of the day, had not Serena come along a few minutes later and shown why it is she who is happily, ecstatically No. 1.
"Today I was immaculate," Serena said. "I played unbelievable. I
was out of my mind."