Is she the greatest female tennis player of all time? Or of her time? Analysts can debate, but what I saw in Serena Williams as she won her fourth U.S. Open singles title (and 15th Grand Slam championship) over the weekend were qualities that transcend any time. One may tire of the phrase “heart of a champion,” but, boy, was it appropriate here.

The match was remarkable on many levels: the longest women’s final at Flushing Meadow since 1981; the first women’s three-setter final since 1995; Williams the first female since Martina Navratilova to win as a 30-year-old, which the latter did in 1987.

Seeded fourth in the tournament, Williams was coming off a spectacular summer that saw her winning a fifth Wimbledon and grabbing the gold at the London Olympics. Facing the number-one player in the world, Victoria Azarenka (who, like fellow Eastern European Maria Sharapova, produces cringe-inducing squeals that make you jump for the mute on the remote), Williams came out of the gate like a Mack truck, with 120 mph serves and whammos off both forehand and backhand sides that made her opponent, 23, look like a junior and not the top women’s player on the planet.

And then, collapse. After winning the first set easily, the tables turned; spraying shots left and right, her colossal serve failing her, and the young Belarusian demonstrating exactly why she is ranked first in the game, it was Williams who looked like the amateur. I stopped taking notes, reminded of her dismal loss in the first round of the French Open earlier this year.

Then… “the shot.” And this is where that overused expression “heart of a champion” comes in. At a critical juncture early in the final set, on a point that was make or break to stay in the match, Williams took a hugely risky swing volley in the air from the backcourt — a shot that she could easily have handled as a groundstroke — for a winner. I thought: wow, that was brave. And the notepad came back out.

Not that things got much easier. Azarenka never let up, and at one point, Williams was two points from losing the match (“I really was preparing my runner-up speech,” she said afterwards, “because I thought ‘Man, she’s playing so great’”), but something I had glimpsed in that fiercely courageous volley made me feel she would prevail. She did, 7-5 in the third.

It’s a fearlessness under pressure that I’ve only seen in the true greats. So is she the best of all time? Navratilova still gets my vote, but she never had to fight her way back to the top from setbacks like Williams has experienced over the last couple of years – and at a not-so-young age, either. It takes a special kind of competitor to have the equanimity that she displayed in returning from the brink on Sunday. A passionate sort of “zen,” a quality that ironically would not be the first to come to mind when thinking of this Serena, but there nonetheless. It’s a spirit that unites her with her colleagues in that pantheon of champions.

(Photo: Getty Images)
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