Serena Williams is a Grand Slam singles champion for the 22nd time in her career. In a rematch of this year's Australian Open final, Williams avenged her loss to Angelique Kerber to lift the Venus Rosewater Dish for the seventh time. With the win, Williams ties Steffi Graf for second place all-time with 22 Grand Slam singles titles, leaving her just two shy of Margaret Court's 24. Serena Williams is now the holder of six Australian Open titles, three French Opens, seven at Wimbledon, and a further six at the U.S. Open.
Nearing 35, Venus' younger sister continues to defy expectations of what an athlete of her age should be able to achieve at the highest level of professional sport. After reaching the final of the year's first two Grand Slams, Williams finally scored #22, and followed hours later with her 14th Grand Slam doubles title alongside big sister. Her twin titles at Wimbledon felt like a deluge of glory, the floodgates opening after the disappointment of stalling at the three previous Slams. Her four tries at tying Steffi Graf ended up being the same number of attempts she took before tying Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova at 18. For the past ten months, Serena has been holding steady atop the women's game, clearly the game's best but unable to get to that next level. At Wimbledon today, her rise continued.
On three separate occasions in her career, Williams has won five of the previous nine Slams held. The first "Serena Slam," spread between the 2002 and 2003 seasons, saw Williams win five of six, and between the '08 U.S. Open and '10 Wimbledon, five of nine. In 2011, at age 29, Serena faced another long layoff due to injury and blood clots in both lungs. The idea that her most extended period of dominance was still on the horizon should have been the stuff of fairy tales. Yet, here we are: Williams has won five of the last eight Slams -- again -- and nine of the last seventeen, all after the age of 30. She is also in the midst of a streak of consecutive weeks at #1 that will reach 178 after Wimbledon.
Still she rises.
Serena's late career success should not come as a surprise; she's been defying expectations from before she even won a tennis match. From the "broken down courts" in Compton, as she described them in her acceptance speech for Sports Illustrated's Sportsperson of the Year, Williams faced adversity from the get go. She waited in Venus' shadow as big sis made the family's first foray into the tennis world. Then, after becoming a champion in her own right, a spate of tragedy and misfortune tested her mettle: the shooting death of her sister Yetunde in 2003, serious injury and illness, the Indian Wells incident in 2001, and the constant judgement of how she should live her life and play tennis from pundits and fans. All this while maintaining a high profile as a successful black woman in a very white tennis world. Yet, at every turn, Williams found a way back from the abyss.
WATCH: Serena Williams' speech at the 2015 Sportsperson of the Year ceremony
Now, Williams is at a point where each time she takes the court in any tournament, some sort of history -- personal or historical -- is at stake. Last year, she returned to Indian Wells for the first time since 2001, a personal triumph over an ugly event in her life. Her title at Wimbledon last year brought with it a second "Serena Slam," and when she competed months later at the U.S. Open, a calendar year Grand Slam was on offer. Serena's latest chance for history was a place alongside Steffi Graf for second on the all-time list of Grand Slam singles titles. On the cusp of yet another career milestone, this time Williams had to battle through her own nerves and being tested by a new generation of WTA players.
Starting with the 2015 U.S. Open, Serena experienced adversity and losses on court in ways that she had never before experienced in her career. Williams' quest for the calendar year Grand Slam was thwarted by Roberta Vinci in the semifinals at Flushing Meadows. Vinci was a game opponent, but Serena showed nerves like she never had before. The need for personal and physical healing after that loss saw her skip the remainder of the WTA season. When she returned at the Australian Open in January, she blitzed through the field, before playing less than her best in losing to Angelique Kerber in the final. Then, at the French Open, Muguruza beat Williams in straight sets to claim her first Grand Slam title.
The question of whether Serena could overcome her potpourri of obstacles -- nerves, injuries, plus energized and more confident opponents -- to finally win #22 was again a focus at Wimbledon, right until her final forehand volley led her to collapse in joy and relief at net. The Serena we saw at this Wimbledon was different from the one who couldn't close the door at recent Slams. Save for a blip against Christina McHale in the second round, Serena decimated the field, including a 48-minute masterclass against Elena Vesnina in the semifinals. With each successive round, she got better. This Serena Williams was the Serena of old: the Serena who would show up at big events after long lay-offs, and play a brand of tennis unbeknownst to any other, seemingly at will.
Still she rises.
There is still another layer to Williams' story. During her late career resurgence, Serena's reach has spilled over from the tennis courts into popular culture. Whether it was drawing attention to the Equal Justice Initiative upon returning to Indian Wells, descending the plantation staircase as co-Lady of the House in Beyonce's "Sorry" music video, or speaking out in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, Williams has been an increasingly visible presence in culture writ large. She has always had interests outside of tennis, sometimes maligned as distractions to her performances. But, now Serena is showing a willingness to engage in politics, specifically the oppression of black people in America. She is no longer just one of the greatest tennis players in history, an entrepreneur, and a celebrity, but she is also a significant cultural icon.
As for where Serena Williams goes from here? After she was able to finally tie Chris Evert's American record of 18 Grand Slam singles titles, she sped to her second "Serena Slam." Perhaps she will rain down a similar level of dominance post-22. Her immediate goal will be a second singles and fourth doubles Olympic gold medal in Rio, before going for #23 at the U.S Open in September. Amidst a backdrop of tense race relations in the United States, she appears intent on speaking out on racial injustices and inspiring people from all walks of life. At 34, she breathes rarefied air as a singular talent and seems keen on securing her legacy on and off the tennis court, propelled by the knowledge that she can script the last few chapters of her career on her own terms.
Now that Serena has won #22, the possibilities for her career seem as endless as they've ever been. Impervious to all expectation but her own, her best may still be to come.
Still she rises.