The finest of her generation

Serena Williams elevates her game in direct proportion to the calibre of her opponent. It is as if she hunts best when the prey is the sweetest. It is why her record over her peers is incredible, and impeccable, writes Rohit Brijnath.

Sport follows a plan. Every coach swears it, every manual prescribes it. To win you sweat, embrace consistency, stay healthy, sometimes you change tactics, sometimes you require a new mentor. There are customs to be followed for success. Please understand.

For instance, Fernando Gonzales takes his game to the workshop for an overhaul, takes a spanner to his mind, tightens his discipline. He soars in the rankings, forehands his way to the Open final. This makes sense. Logic is at work here.

For instance, Maria Sharapova oils her awkward movement, polishes her confidence, mentally takes a leap at the US Open last year where she breaks barriers against Mauresmo and Henin-Hardenne. In Australia, she scraps her way to a second consecutive Grand Slam final. No surprise is felt, her work ethic is evident, her discipline plain.

But sometimes, rarely, magnificently, sport makes little sense, it sneers at logic, it laughs at convention, it mocks every rule. Victory arrives from nowhere and it is powerful because it reinforces the art of the impossible, it reminds us that resolve can override form and humble ranking, and it refreshes our belief in the strength of the human spirit. Occasionally it is the closest we come to magic.

Serena Williams' Australian Open win, her eighth Grand Slam title, was as bewildering as it was bewitching. Because she is 25 and that's getting close to washed up when you've been around since 1997. Because she last won a title 24 months ago. Because she sank to No.140 last year, skipped nine tournaments and played only four. Because as the year began she wore more rust than your old bicycle left in the rain. Because weeks ago in Hobart she lost to Sybille Bammer, a fine player but not yet recognised as a famous scalp taker. And we're not even going to dip our toe into the universal, and sometimes unkind, debate about her weight.

Before you say anything, figure this out. Serena, who now travels to Bangalore to illuminate the field there, says, almost in helpful explanation: "It's difficult for anyone to beat me because I have a unique style. I have a unique game. You know, tennis is what I think I was born to do." No kidding.

Williams overwhelmed Sharapova 6-1, 6-2 in the Open final with a display of muscular hitting under perfect control. In truth, both women's games sound like martial music, with the grunt as accompaniment, but Serena was the one always in perfect, powerful tune. Still, no solitary factor accounts for victory and this was triumph born of a complex combination of reasons.

Victory came because she was lucky, for a body visited too often by injury in the past, held together with wire and electrician's tape and did not break down.

Victory came because the draw was kind to this unseeded warrior and because the women's tour remains a somewhat gentler place than the men's, where early rounds do not stretch the sinew or examine the mind as sharply, and no single, dazzling player (a Graf, a Seles) owns the game at the top. Her seeded tests till the final were restricted to Mara Santangelo (No. 27), Nadia Petrova (No. 5), Jelena Jankovic (No. 11) and Shahar Peer (No. 16), not quite the equivalent of the Four Horse (wo)men of the Apocalypse.

Victory came because she found herself a cause, raging at those who questioned her fitness and queried her commitment. It frustrates people who preach single-mindedness that she does not appear to obsess over tennis, baffled as they are that she can treat this sport as a pastime (supposedly distracted by film and fashion), and still win.

Serena seemed to remember every perceived slight. Furthermore, athletes are famous for driving themselves by creating "the world is against me" scenarios, and her mindset was revealed when she said: "I love doubters. More than anything what I love, besides obviously winning, is proving people wrong. Ever since I was young, even when I came on tour, it was Venus, Venus, Venus, Venus. Oh, and the little sister. My whole goal in life was to prove people wrong."

Of course, the Open won, no outrage required, even she admitted: "Even I didn't expect to come in and win it all."

Victory came because still she scares opponents, enough for a few points, sometimes a few games. Even not fully fit, not fully sharp (except in the final), her snarl, her stare, her primal scream (against Vaidisova in the semis), her record, it all daunts, and what her gladiatorial body language doesn't say, she puts in words: "I've always been mentally strong, I think probably mentally stronger than a lot of players on tour. No matter what, if I'm playing right it's hard for anyone to beat me on the women's tour."

In the third round, Petrova served for the match in the second set at 5-4. In the quarters, Shahar Peer, who won three tournaments last year while Serena only played four, was two points from a win but lost 8-6 in the third. Fear was alive on the tennis court.

Victory came because on a note was written a name and in her heart she carried a face. In the Los Angeles suburb of Compton, where Williams learnt her game against the echo of gunfire, her sister Yetunde Price was shot and killed in 2003. Such wounds are beyond suture, and if every day Serena scribbled advice to herself on scraps of paper, like "look at the ball, move forward", then on the day of the final her note to herself said only one word.


Later, the champion said: "I just thought about what an amazing sister she was to me. I just said, Serena, this has to be motivating. This has to be more than enough to motivate me, and I think it was."

But mostly victory came because Serena's a champion and this you can't find in a textbook, can't buy in a mall, can't make in a lab. Some hearts are bigger, some wills stronger, some desires purer. Much like Tiger Woods, or even Anil Kumble, she owns a natural gift for competition. In the testing of herself by opponent, by situation, lies the ultimate thrill, the finest and clearest discovery of the self.

The later Serena reached in the tournament the more dangerous her threat grew, for once the prize is in sight, a switch seems to pull within her. And this competitor that fumes within her can be measured. First, in her win-loss record in Grand Slam finals. Hingis, for instance, has won five Slam finals, lost 7, Venus has won four-lost six, Henin won five-lost four, Davenport won three-lost four, Clijsters won one-lost four. Serena has won seven, lost two.

Second, Serena, as she did so persuasively in the final that Saturday, elevates her game in direct proportion to the calibre of her opponent. It is as if she hunts best when the prey is the sweetest. It is why her record over her peers is incredible, and impeccable, for head-to-head she is superior to all of them: she leads Venus 8-7, Clijsters 7-1, Henin 5-3, Sharapova 3-2, Davenport 11-4, Hingis 7-6, Pierce 5-1 and Mauresmo 10-2.

She is, without question, the most feisty, ferocious and finest player of her generation.

CAREER HIGHLIGHTS SINGLES TITLES 2007: Australian Open. 2005: Australian Open. 2004: Miami, Beijing.

2003: Australian Open, Wimbledon, Paris (Indoors), Miami.

2002: French Open, Wimbledon, US Open, Miami, Scottsdale, Rome, Tokyo (Princess Cup), Leipzig.

2001: Season-Ending Championships, Indian Wells, Toronto (Canadian Open).

2000: Hannover, Los Angeles, Tokyo (Princess Cup).

1999: US Open, Paris (Indoors), Indian Wells, Los Angeles, Grand Slam Cup.

DOUBLES TITLES 2003: Australian Open (with Venus Williams).

2002: Wimbledon (with Venus), Leipzig (with Stevenson).

2001: Australian Open (with Venus). 2000: Wimbledon, Olympics (both with Venus).

1999: French Open, US Open, Hannover (all with Venus).

1998: Oklahoma City, Zurich (both with Venus).

MIXED DOUBLES TITLES 1998: Wimbledon, US Open (with Max Mirnyi). ADDITIONAL TITLES

United States Fed Cup Team 1999, 2003. United States Olympic Team 2000.