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Refocused Serena Williams makes case for being all-time best

By
Art Spander, The Sports Xchange
Serena Williams returns a ball to Venus Williams in 3 set victory in the quarter finals in Arthur Ashe Stadium on day 9 at the US Open Tennis Championships at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in New York City on September 8, 2015. Serena Williams is trying to become the first woman to win the Tennis Grand Slam since Steffi Graf in 1988. Photo by John Angelillo/UPI
Serena Williams returns a ball to Venus Williams in 3 set victory in the quarter finals in Arthur Ashe Stadium on day 9 at the US Open Tennis Championships at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in New York City on September 8, 2015. Serena Williams is trying to become the first woman to win the Tennis Grand Slam since Steffi Graf in 1988. Photo by John Angelillo/UPI | License Photo

NEW YORK -- How appropriately named. How incorrectly named. Serena. Serene, calm, composed, tranquil. At times, perhaps, but if anything, Serena Williams, arguably the best women's tennis player of all time, is feisty, and more than anything competitive.

Which is how one becomes great in an individual sport, and Williams, whose quest is still alive to become only the fourth woman in history to take the Grand Slam, all four major championships in a calendar year, is nothing but great. Maybe, to borrow a line from Muhammad Ali, the greatest.

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How do you compare sporting eras? Could Babe Ruth have hit Nolan Ryan (Yes, Ruth could hit anyone). Could Joe Louis have beaten Ali? Could the '79 Steelers have beaten '14 Patriots?

All you can do is judge an athlete or team against the opponents he or she faces. And the opponents Serena, now a few days from her 34th birthday, has faced over the years, understand her brilliance. And tenacity.

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After all, she and older sister Venus, like the hip-hop song and movie title, are straight out of Compton. That's the mean-streets city east of Los Angeles where you would expect to find basketball players but hardly tennis players.

Venus gave Serena an unexpected tough match Tuesday night in the Open quarterfinals, taking it to three sets before Serena won, 6-2, 1-6, 6-3.

Thanks to a demanding and perceptive father, Richard Williams, who put racquets into their hands and thoughts of success into their heads, Venus and Serena made it to the top.

Venus, who at 14 in 1984 played a women's pro tournament at what was then Oakland Coliseum Arena, developed a bit quicker, but Richard Williams kept insisting -- correctly -- Serena would be the better player. If the more emotional one.

Serena has erupted more than once, most notably in the 2009 U.S. Open. After being called for a foot fault, she reacted by calling the line judge a lot of obscene things, drawing an $82,000 fine.

Both Williams ladies, as African-Americans, took a lot of abuse while playing a sport that primarily was upper class and Caucasian. Serena gives in to nobody.

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"She's a competitor," said Maria Sharapova, who has won all the majors and could be described as a rival -- except Serena beat Sharapova in the last 17 matches between the two.

"She doesn't like to give free points and free games," Sharapova said. "No matter the score, she wants to win those games and those points, whether she's down a break point or up a break point or whatever it is."

When that intensity is combined with power and speed, Serena pounds serves and chases down returns with a skill that few have been able to match is she has her health and her direction -- which since she turned pro in 1995 at 14 haven't always been there.

Although No. 1 in the WTA Rankings when she was 20, and frequently thereafter including the past three years, Williams endured a number of injuries and ailments, including a life-threatening one in 2011, and also had a change of heart.

Doing so well so early, winning four consecutive Slam tournaments, from the 2002 French through the 2003 Australian -- the "Serena Slam" she called it -- may have brought about complacency. She studied acting, was on television. The tennis was secondary. And relatively ineffective. From 2004-06, she won only one Slam event, the '05 Australian.

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The tennis establishment was baffled. Or in the case of Chris Evert, who won 18 Slam singles, frustrated. Evert wrote a letter to Serena in the April 2006 issue of Tennis Magazine, pointing out Williams was wasting her talent, and that an athlete's window to achieve is very small.

"Just a couple of years ago, when you were fully committed to the game, you showed the athleticism, shot-making, and competitive desire to become the greatest player ever," Evert wrote. "Then you got sidetracked with injuries, pet projects, and indifference and have won only one major in the last seven you've played. I find those results hard to fathom. You're simply too good not to be winning two Grand Slam titles a year.

"You're still only 24, well within your prime. These are crucial years that you'll never get back. Why not dedicate yourself entirely for the next five years and see what you can achieve?"

Williams did just that. She won in '07 and '08, twice in '09 and '10. Then she sliced a tendon in her foot stepping on a glass that broke. That was followed by a pulmonary embolism and a hematoma.

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"I nearly died," she said.

She roared back. Heading into this Open, she owned 21 career major titles, one fewer than Steffi Graf, who in 1988 was the last player man or woman to get the calendar-year Grand Slam, and three fewer than Margaret Court.

Consecutive wins starting at the 2014 U.S. Open gave her a second Serena Slam. The future is always a question, but a few more majors are very much a possibility.

"I'm having a great time now," she said a few days ago.

Hard to dispute that.

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