WIMBLEDON, England — The 34-year-old woman lying face-up on the famed grass she sometimes calls “home” had finished her initial championship smile. For a second or two, she lay there almost expressionless, eyes closed briefly, as if she might fall into a nap if only the lungs weren’t still heaving.
Serena Williams had a heap to process. She had clambered up the last rung of the hard ladder Saturday on Centre Court to tie Steffi Graf at 22 Grand Slam titles, atop the Open era that began in 1968. She had drawn within two of Margaret Court’s all-years record of 24. She had withstood the kind of glistening effort from Angelique Kerber that, in turn, wound up flattering Williams in her 7-5, 6-3 victory in the Wimbledon final.
Yet she also had shoved last September and its freaky second Friday into the past at last. Her seventh Wimbledon plate would be large enough to help occlude her galling loss to Roberta Vinci in a U.S. Open semifinal. So as Williams directed Kerber’s last reply into an open court with a forehand volley, her feelings proved dual.
“It’s obviously a great relief,” she said, telling of being “so excited to win Wimbledon” but also, “Maybe even more so is the excitement of getting 22, you know, trying so hard to get there, finally being able to match history, which is pretty awesome.”
With a depth that might baffle normal humans, she had suffered the thwarting of her bid for a calendar Grand Slam. In a documentary called “Serena,” shown on the BBC last Sunday, she lay on a bed saying, after the loss to Vinci, “This is the biggest moment in my career history, and I didn’t get it. I’ve never been in this position. I’ve never been so close to having something and then losing it. I also just feel like I’ve let a lot of people down.”
Come Saturday afternoon, her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, said, “If I’m totally honest, I’m not relieved to have the 22nd. I’m relieved to have found back Serena. Everything depends on that. Again, I don’t look at the reward. I look at how to achieve it, and there was clearly something missing the last eight months, and the thing that was missing was just Serena. I mean, the tennis player was there, but Serena as a person was not really herself, so she was beatable.”
Concluding that she needed “time,” as people do, he said, “I think we did not realize how much time she needed to recover from the [dejection] of the loss of the U.S. Open. So it took time. I mean, maybe I’m wrong, but that’s what I feel.”
Williams’ slight funk, of course, would have been many players’ bonanza. She reached the finals of the Australian Open and the French Open. Yet by Wimbledon and certainly by Saturday, she had restored her air of invulnerability, even against the all-grown-up Grand Slam mentality of Kerber, and largely because she had the one component that mattered most: her serve.
Through a high-quality match with vivid rallies that drew gasps from the audience, her serve kept carrying her over any rocks. She faced only one break point — the only one she faced in the last three rounds — in the seventh game of the second set. She cleared that away with a 117-mph ace to the doubles line. She blasted 13 aces to Kerber’s zero. Unreturned serves went 27-12.
“I try everything,” Kerber said.
That serve wound up pressuring Kerber’s serve. “It’s difficult to hold your serve,” Mouratoglou reminded, “when you are so much under pressure because you feel you can’t break your opponent.” When Kerber sprang some rare leaks to lose serve at 5-6 in the first set and 3-4 in the second, a tight match suddenly wandered astray, and Williams suddenly served for it.
She placed and blasted three first serves — 94 mph, 114, 101 — on which the ball only ticked Kerber’s racket. At 40-love, she produced a backhand volley and a forehand volley (part of her 16-4 advantage in net points) that left her tumbling to the grass before joining Kerber in a long, respectful hug.
“Even in this match, you see how she closed it,” Mouratoglou said. “This is Serena. Today, when she’s in trouble, 15-30, boom, boom. This is Serena. When she needs to lift her level to close, boom, she does it. This is Serena. I mean, I didn’t see that for eight months. Did you see it? Not much.”
Against a 28-year-old German with Polish and German parents who will rise from No. 4 to No. 2 (behind Williams) in the next world rankings, Williams reversed the outcome from their Australian Open final with a serve Kerber found “much better” and “a little bit strange because it’s tougher to return” on grass.
Wimbledon, as often, was “home.” It’s where Williams healed ultimately from what she called “a lot of pressure” and said, “I put a lot of that pressure on myself.” It’s where she ended a phase in which, Mouratoglou said, “She was questioning more than usual, for sure. For sure. I mean, the real Serena is also questioning because she’s human, but much less and not for a long time.”
It’s where she could wind up pondering 22 Grand Slam titles and saying, “There’s definitely some blurs between eight, nine and 10. I don’t even know where eight, nine and 10 [were] or even when. I definitely don’t remember where 12 was. I remember one and two. I remember through four. Gets really blurry after that.”
It’s where she made off toward New York with a chance at 23 and for everyone to talk 24 — everyone except Williams. “I’ve learned a lot about 22,” she said, smiling. “I learned not to get involved in those debates and conversations. I just learned to play tennis. That’s what I do best.”