Serena Williams reclaims top spot and breaks record after win Down Under
  | By Brian Coleman

The start to 2017 has been much kinder to Serena Williams than the start of the 2016 season. She began 2016 coming off one of the most difficult losses of her career, a shocking defeat to Roberta Vinci in the 2015 U.S. Open semifinals, as she was pursuing both Steffi Graf’s Open Era record of 22 Grand Slam titles and the Calendar Grand Slam.

The pressure of both of those pursuits got to Serena, and it spilled over into 2016 as she fell to Angelique Kerber in the Australian Open final, and then lost to Garbine Muguruza in the French Open final.

Even to a great champion like Serena, it was easy for doubt to creep in.

But she regrouped in the year’s next major, exacting some revenge on Kerber to win her seventh Wimbledon title and finally equal Graf’s mark.

“It’s been incredibly difficult not to think about it,” Serena said after that win in England. “It makes the victory even sweeter to know how hard I worked for it.”

So to start 2017, Serena had that monkey off of her back. She had the 22nd Grand Slam title and wasn’t even the top ranked player in the world anymore, a distinction that Kerber now held after winning the U.S. Open.

She had also just got engaged at the end of 2016, to Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian, and was in a very good place mentally.

And that showed earlier this year.

Despite losing to fellow American Madison Brengle in Auckland in her first tournament of 2017, she was dialed-in Down Under. It began with a tricky opening match against former top 10 player Belinda Bencic of Switzerland, but Serena dispatched her 6-4, 6-3 before moving past another tricky opponent in the Czech Republic’s Lucie Safarova 6-3, 6-4.

She then dropped just four games to cruise past Nicole Gibbs before knocking off the 16th-seed Barbora Strycova in straight sets, setting up a matchup with the red-hot Johanna Konta.

Konta entered the quarterfinal showdown with Serena playing, as well as any player which included dominating victories over Caroline Wozniacki and Ekaterina Makarova, but she was no match for the determined Serena, who rolled to a 6-2, 6-3 victory to reach the Aussie semifinals for the third consecutive season.

In the other semifinal it was her older sister, Venus, squaring off with American Coco Vandeweghe who had put together the best tournament of her career. Venus came back from a set down to beat Vandeweghe, and a potential blockbuster final between the two sisters and all-time greats was a real possibility.

Playing against the resurgent Mirjana Lucic-Baroni, who was one of the best stories of the tournament, Serena made the possibility a reality, dispatching Lucic-Baroni 6-2, 6-1.

“This is probably the moment of our careers so far. I can definitely say [it is] for me,” said Serena of the pair’s first Grand Slam final matchup in eight years. “I never lost hope for us being able to play each other in a [Grand Slam] final although it was hard because we’re usually on the same side of the draw. After everything that Venus has been through with her illness, I just can’t help but feel like it’s a win-win situation for me. I was there the whole time. We lived together. I know what she went through. This is the one time that I really genuinely feel like no matter what happens I can’t lose, she can’t lose. It’s going to be a great situation.”

It was a renaissance final and was part of a larger theme in Melbourne, as Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal renewed their rivalry in the men’s singles final.

But there is just something special about the two sisters squaring off in this final. Serena was still seeking that 23rd major title to become the sole leader in the Open Era, and Venus was playing in her first Grand Slam final since 2009.

The nerves of both players were obvious from the start as the first four games were all breaks and Serena even broke a racket in anger early on. Serena would not be denied, however, and broke Venus four times while hitting 27 winners to beat Venus 6-4, 6-4.

 “I’ve been chasing it for a really long time. When it got on my radar, I knew I had an opportunity to get there, and I’m here,” Serena said of her 23rd major. “It’s a great feeling. No better place to do it than Melbourne.”

When these two play against one another the emotional level for not only both players but their families as well is sky high, and it is hard to imagine just how difficult it must be for the two of them to go head-to-head like that.

The two have always been close and leaned on one another when they first broke onto the tour. The first time they ever played against each other in a professional match was at the Australian Open in 1998. They have met 28 times over the course of their legendary careers with Serena winning 17 times to Venus’ 11.

“There’s no way I would be at 23 without her; there’s no way I would be at number one without her,” an emotional Serena said of her older sister. “There’s no way I would have anything without her. She’s my inspiration. She’s the only reason I’m standing here today, and the only reason that the Williams sisters exist. So thank you, Venus, for inspiring me to be the best player I could be and inspiring me to work hard. Every time you won this week, I felt like I’ve got to win, too.”

The win also took back the world number one ranking for Serena, who had briefly lost it to Kerber after the German won the U.S. Open last year.

In her speech to the Melbourne crowd, Venus echoed similar sentiments about her younger sister.

“Congratulations, Serena, on number 23. I have been there right with you. Some of them I lost right there against you,” she said. “I guess that’s weird, but it’s been an awesome thing. Your win has always been my win. I think you know that. And all the time I couldn’t be there, wouldn’t be there, didn’t get there, you were there. I’m enormously proud of you. You mean the world to me.”

Much like in the case of Federer-Nadal, the networks who broadcasted Serena-Venus match benefitted greatly from having the two icons face off against one another. This final was up 36 percent in viewership compared to the 2016 final between Serena and Kerber, and it was the highest rated women’s final since Maria Sharapova defeated Ana Ivanovic in 2008.

It is a remarkable feat for both of these players at this stage of their respective careers to have met in the final, and is indicative of a growing trend in tennis of older players finding success later in their careers. Of course, Serena and Venus have had success throughout each stage of their careers, and the physical, mental and emotional toll each has been through over the last two decades made this matchup even more unlikely, but gave tennis fans an iconic moment.

With the Open Era record now in her grasp, Serena has a new challenge: Tie Margaret Court’s record of 24 Grand Slam titles.

Brian Coleman

Brian Coleman is the Senior Editor for Long Island Tennis Magazine. He may be reached at brianc@usptennis.com