For Serena Williams, the competition has moved off the court and transferred to the dry pages of history. The new challenges do not come from the likes of her older sister, Venus, but in pursuing legendary figures such as Maureen Connolly, Margaret Court and Steffi Graf.
Venus was the final obstacle standing between Serena and the Serena Slam, winning four consecutive Grand Slam titles. After 2 hours 22 minutes, the long journey, the fulfillment of Serena's vision culminated today at the Australian Open. The No. 1-seeded Serena defeated No. 2 Venus, 7-6 (4), 3-6, 6-4, in the final, in what was the best final between the sisters in Grand Slams.
At 21, Serena, who won her first Australian Open title, joined Graf and Martina Navratilova as winners of non-calendar year Grand Slams, as her streak started at the French Open last year. Her opposition in the four Slam finals was Venus. And, looking ahead, this was the first step of another Slam, one in the same calendar year, achieved by Connolly, Court and Graf.
"I just can't believe I can now be compared to these women because they're such greats," Williams said. "And I've really been able to look up to them. I don't know if I'll ever accomplish everything that they have, but just to even be in that category of winning four in a row, for me, it's really amazing.
"As a kid, I've always dreamed of it, and I've always wanted to do it."
Serena increased her total of Slam titles to five and leads her head-to-head series with Venus, 6-5. This was where their first match as professionals took place. The Australian Open was Serena's first Grand Slam, and she lost to Venus in the second round in an error-riddled match in 1998. So many times in their early rivalry, Venus was the one who had to comfort her younger sister, who was bitterly disappointed after losing.
In an odd twist, Venus was doing the consoling again. Serena had a subdued celebration after Venus' forehand sailed out on match point, hugging her sister and blowing kisses to the crowd. During the victory ceremony, Serena grew emotional.
"I never get choked up, never, but I'm really emotional right now," Serena said, tears in her eyes.
She thanked her parents and stepped away, and Venus looked concerned. In her speech, Venus dedicated her appearance in the final to her grandmother, who passed away recently.
"I guess the first thing is I was also thankful the roof was closed," Venus said of the oven-baked day outside. "Quite hot. I'm just really happy with the play this week, unbelievable matches. Wish I could have been the winner and now you have a great champion, Serena. Now she's won all four Grand Slams, which is something I would love to do one day.
"I'm trying to be just like her. What else can I say?"
Venus had been playing in her first Australian Open final and looked heartened that she managed to make it competitive. In her previous four matches against Serena, she had not been able to win a set.
Serena noticed the difference. The rallies got better and better and the points were actually ending with winners, rather than unforced errors, as has been the case so often in the past. Venus served bigger, hitting seven aces and coming up with service winners on big points. Her fastest serve was 121 miles per hour.
"She wasn't going away, usually she hits a double fault," Serena said. "She hit so many big serves today. Honestly, I didn't think I was able to pull it out. I said, 'Serena, fight, fight.' "
The fighting spirit Serena has displayed during this tournament was in evidence. When her serve was broken at 4-4 in the first set, she sent her racket flying toward her equipment bag on the sideline. She disputed calls, issued a withering glare to a linesman and said, "You just won't call them out will you?" Later, when he made a call in her favor, a fan called out, "Are you scared of her?"
That's how tight this final was getting. Serena took the first-set tiebreaker, 7-4, breaking down Venus' forehand. The second set went to Venus, 6-3, the first one she had been able to win against Serena since the 2001 U.S. Open final, which Venus won in straight sets.
Serena did not lose a set in winning Wimbledon and the U.S. Open last year, but dropped three at the Australian Open, one to Emilie Loit of France, one to Kim Clijsters in the semifinals and the other to Venus. Her Grand Slam winning streak stands at 28 matches.
"This one has been a little more difficult," she said. "It puts things in perspective for me. Venus played unbelievable and Kim and even Emilie Loit. I was really happy I was able to come through."
The third set held great promise, had the expected dramatic moments, but never turned into a classic. Venus saved five break points in the eighth game of the third set. Serena grew increasingly frustrated with each break point lost, and after netting a forehand at deuce, she smacked her racket hard on the court. Finally, Venus held after a lengthy rally.
Serena then held. The final game, in which she broke Venus at 15, was sloppy and error-filled. The Serena Slam was official and the youngest Williams sister was on her way, ready to turn the next page in history.
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*--* With the completion of the Serena Slam, Williams joins a select company as only the ninth woman to achieve a career Grand Slam, since the Australian Open was first held in 1922. The players, with the year the career slam was completed, titles in the Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, and total Grand Slam championships: Player Year Aus French Wimb U.S Total Maureen Connolly 1953 1 2 3 3 9 Doris Hart 1954 1 2 1 2 6 Shirley Fry 1957 1 1 1 1 4 Margaret Court 1963 11 5 3 5 24 Billie Jean King 1972 1 1 6 4 12 Chris Evert 1982 2 7 3 6 18 Martina Navratilova 1983 3 2 9 4 18 Steffi Graf 1988 4 5 7 5 21 Serena Williams 2003 1 1 1 2 5 Note: Helen Wills Moody, who dominated women's tennis in the 1920s and is third on the all-time list with 19 Grand Slam titles, never played in the Australian Open. Only three players -- Connolly in 1953, Court in 1970 and Graf in 1988 -- have won all four titles in a single year
*--* Sister Slam Head-to-head matches in Grand Slams for the Williams sisters: 2003 Australian Open (final) Serena d. Venus, 7-6 (4), 3-6, 6-4 2002 U.S. Open (final) Serena d. Venus, 6-4, 6-3 2002 Wimbledon (final) Serena d. Venus, 7-6 (4), 6-3 2002 Roland Garros (final) Serena d. Venus, 7-5, 6-3 2001 U.S. Open (final) Venus d. Serena, 6-2, 6-4 2000 Wimbledon (semifinal) Venus d. Serena, 6-2, 7-6 (3) 1998 Australian Open (2nd rnd) Venus d. Serena, 7-6 (4), 6-1 Note -- Serena has a 6-5 edge in all head-to-head matches