HER footwork is better than ever, as is the way she strikes the ball.
And, judging by her recent win in the French Open, when her last ace against Maria Sharapova equalled Rafael Nadal’s fastest in the men’s final, the greatest server in the history of women’s tennis has just got even greater.
Little more than a year ago, Serena Williams had been written off. Beaten in the first round of the French Open by the world No.111, and disillusioned with the game after a turbulent, injury-hit, three-year period notable mostly for her abuse of a line judge in the 2009 US Open, she was branded a busted flush, a burnt-out, bad-mouthing American whose best years were behind her.
Williams, though, was having none of it. Inspired by a new French coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, she has managed in the last 12 months not only to get her mojo back but to produce the form of her life. Since that humiliation at Roland Garros in 2012, she has won 74 of her 77 matches, a sequence that has secured her three major titles and a gold medal at the Olympic Games. In 2013, she has lost only two of her 45 matches.
She is still prone to controversy, as she proved with her recent comments in an interview with Rolling Stone, when she appeared to criticise the victim in a high-profile rape case, but the tennis is once again without flaw. If the world No.1 wins Wimbledon, it will be her fourth triumph in five majors, bringing echoes of early 2003, when she held all four Grand Slam titles.
It bodes ill for her opponents these next couple of weeks. A chasm appears to separate Williams from even her biggest challengers. She has won 14 of her last 16 matches – including 13 in a row – against Sharapova, the No.3 seed. She has won 12 out of 14 against Victoria Azarenka, ranked two.
Her first-round opponent, Mandy Minella, the world No.92, is unlikely to fancy her chances. Williams is on a 31-match unbeaten run, the best of her career. If she wins her sixth Wimbledon title, it will take her total of Grand Slam triumphs to 17. Only Steffi Graf (22), Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova (both 18) have won more in the Open era.
Williams has a chance to eclipse them all. Not only has she taken her game to new heights, the suspicion is that she can go higher yet. After beating Sharapova in Paris, she was asked if, like Greta Garbo, she had considered retiring at her peak. “Wow, what an analogy,” she replied. “I want to go out in my peak. That’s my goal. But have I peaked yet?”
Williams has had these purple patches before, but the timing of this current one makes it special.
Williams is 31, the oldest world No.1 in the history of the WTA rankings, which go back nearly four decades. Her victory at Roland Garros made her the oldest winner there in the Open era. If she wins Wimbledon, she will become the first woman ever to win four majors after her 30th birthday.
Williams is a special talent, a force of nature, but her improvement with age is not an isolated phenomenon. Tennis is changing. The women’s top 100 includes 12 players over the age of 30, four times as many as it had 15 years ago. In a game that once asked its women to produce too much too young, some of its best performers now come into the veteran category. Apart from Williams, Li Na, aged 31, is ranked six. Roberta Vinci, 30, is another late bloomer, belatedly rising to 11th in the world.
There are similar stories in the men’s game. Roger Federer last year became the first thirty-something to win Wimbledon since Arthur Ashe in 1975. At this year’s French Open, David Ferrer became the oldest first-time Grand Slam finalist since 1973. And no discussion about Indian summers would be complete without an honourable mention for Tommy Haas, who is enjoying a remarkable renaissance at the age of 35. In March, his defeat of Novak Djokovic made him the oldest player in 30 years to beat a world No.1.
It is good news for the likes of Andy Murray. At 26, he can see that there is plenty of time for him to win more majors. “It has been quite interesting,” he says. “Guys are reaching their peak later in their careers. The average age of the top 100 has increased by a few years since I first came on Tour.”
Nowadays, tennis has less room for the teenage sensations who used to capture the headlines. Boris Becker won two Wimbledon titles in his teens. Mats Wilander won his first major at 17, Bjorn Borg at 18 and Pete Sampras at 19. The most recent teenage champion was 19-year-old Nadal, in the 2005 French Open. Neither do they retire as early as they once did. Borg was finished at 25, Becker and Pat Rafter at 28. Monica Seles, Justine Henin, Martina Hingis, Kim Clijsters and Jennifer Capriati all decided to call it quits before they were 30.
Murray believes that the changing profile of Grand Slam contenders is down to trends that have altered the way tennis is played at the highest level. Success is now pursued mainly from the baseline, which means that, despite longer rallies, less pressure is exerted on the players’ joints.
“A lot of the guys who used to play serve and volley had a lot of problems with their backs and their knees and hips, and finished when they were 28 or 29 years old,” says the Scot. “And now guys are probably training better. There are better training methods, and people probably understand how to recover from matches better and are learning new things all the time about how the body works.”
Older players have always been more savvy, but now they have the technology and the resources to exploit that knowledge. Men in their thirties are strong enough and fit enough to blow teenagers away. Haas, for instance, has a muscular 6ft 2in frame that shows little sign of letting him down.
“I think what it comes down to is the older you get, you would assume you get wiser,” says Haas. “Now with nutrition and everything you can do, the right training, the trainers that you have, it just helps you mentally.
“You just know what works for you best. You might do a lot of lifting, you might do a lot of cardiovascular workout. You try to figure out what helps you the best if you want to keep on riding it for as long as you can.”
At Roland Garros last month, the women’s final was preceded by a legends’ doubles match in which Hingis and Lindsay Davenport played Navratilova and Elena Dementieva. The relevance of this is that Hingis was 32. Dementieva was 31, some 19 days younger than the American who went on to win the main event a few hours later.
Williams likes to say that age is just a number, but in her case, it is a significant one. She and some of her fellow professionals are getting better as the years go by, and tennis is the better for it.