Serena Williams became the oldest player, at 31 years and four months, to claim the WTA’s No. 1 ranking today, and she couldn’t have done it in more fitting fashion. As she has so many times in the past, Serena battled her opponent, her own mistakes, her physical troubles—a bad ankle and a developing cold, in this case—and even her tears, and then put them all aside and found her best tennis when she absolutely had to have it.
Serena beat Petra Kvitova, 3-6, 6-3, 7-5, to reach the Doha semifinals and clinch the top spot for the first time in more than two years. The Czech was also a fitting opponent for the occasion. At the start of last year, it had been Kvitova who had appeared to be on the verge of taking over No. 1; the tennis world looked ahead to the possibility of a rivalry between her and Williams. Since then, though, it’s been virtually all Serena, as the past has once against turned into the future for the women’s tour.
We got a taste of what might have been, and what might still be, between Williams and Kvitova today. It was an up-and-down match, filled with many winners but also marred by crucial double-faults, and neither player brought her best at the same time. The first set was all Kvitova, as she cracked 14 winners and dictated with depth from the baseline. She was determined to go after her serve; the result was 14 aces for the match.
But going big on both first and second balls turned out to be a double-edged sword for Kvitova—those 14 aces came with eight double faults. Even worse was when she hit them. On serve in the second set at 3-4 and still seemingly in control of the match, Kvitova opened by sending two hard-hit second serves over the service line. That was all the opening needed by Serena, who suddenly grew more aggressive, broke serve, and held at love to send it to a third. Struggling mightily up to that point, Williams finished the second set by winning 12 of 14 points.
The third set was much the same, only more so. Kvitova found her game again at the same time that Serena lost hers. Now nearly in tears, Williams threatened to smash her racquet as she went down 1-4. In the next game, though, you could see her gather herself and make a concentrated, positive effort with each swing. She began to play much better, calmer tennis, while Kvitova’s aggressive serving came back to haunt her again. Up 4-2, she double faulted to give the break back. Overall, this was an encouraging performance from the Czech, who has started the year poorly, but in each of the last two sets she succumbed to the nerves that automatically come with trying to finish a match against Serena.
The key game came with Serena serving at 3-4. She didn’t face any break points, but she hit aces at 30-30 and deuce to get through it. From there, her confidence returned. One reason that, ranking aside, Serena has been the top women’s player for so long is that she can calm herself down and stop making errors at the exact moment when the rest of us—including Petra Kvitova—would be tightening up and making more of them. That’s what happened in the last three games. Hitting with a perfect mix of power and margin, serving brilliantly, and leaving the emotional turmoil behind, Serena made closing look easy.
She finished with a love hold that was punctuated by—do I even have to say it?—an ace on match point. Serena, who has said for years that she doesn’t care about being No. 1—I’m “so over it” was her latest version of the refrain—looked pretty pleased to be there again. She lifted her arm in triumph, she let the tears flow again, and she scribbled on the camera in front of her, “Serena is No. 1.” Why wouldn’t she feel good about being in that spot again? Everyone likes to get back where they belong.