To commemorate Serena Williams’ 40th birthday on September 26, we're looking back at four matches that define the power, precision and unshakeable persistence that took her to an Open Era record of 23 Grand Slam titles and 319 weeks atop the WTA rankings.

Last up: a signature face-off with chief rival Victoria Azarenka at the 2015 Wimbledon Championships.

Serena Williams continued her march towards a second "Serena Slam" after an epic with Azarenka.

Serena Williams continued her march towards a second "Serena Slam" after an epic with Azarenka.

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THE MOMENT: In a sport that thrives on the premise of evenly matched competitors battling for the biggest titles, the question of rivalries comes up when discussing Serena Williams. As any other athlete on the WTA tour, how do you compare to the incomparable?

It’s a challenge no player has been able to consistently meet throughout Williams’ 20+ years on tour: aside from sister Venus, Serena has outlasted nearly all of her early- and mid-career rivals.

Enter Victoria Azarenka, arguably Williams’ closest competitor in the last decade, and the player to most consistently catalyze classic matches out of the 23-time Grand Slam champion, belying their 18-5 head-to-head. Comfortable dominant against heavy hitters like Maria Sharapova, Ana Ivanovic, or Petra Kvitova, Williams can find herself on the other side of the coin against the scrappy Belarusian. An aggressive counterpuncher, Azarenka can rely on her athleticism to make Serena play the extra ball and turn scrambling defense to striking offense.

Their rivalry began in earnest Down Under, where Azarenka took a set from the eventual champion before wilting in the Melbourne heat. She came even closer the following year, but where 2009 came down to physicality, 2010’s would prove mental when Williams roared back from a set and 4-0 down to advance through in three.

Though Serena long held the edge on Azarenka at major tournaments, the rivalry grew more equal on the tour level, with the latter scoring championship victories in both Doha and Cincinnati in 2013 in between a pair of thrilling US Open finals.

Williams and Azarenka met for the first time since becoming mothers at the 2019 BNP Paribas Open.

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“I'm a big Victoria fan,” she said after the narrow Western & Southern Open loss. “Whenever I'm not at a tournament, I root for her. For me, I think she's just the ultimate competitor on the court and just really nice. She just leaves everything on the court and nothing personal, and everything off the court, she's just so, so professional and so nice. I mean, I really get along with her. She's just a great person.”

The top two players of that season, Williams and Azarenka took divergent paths in the two years that followed such that, by 2015, one was in hot pursuit of a Calendar Year Grand Slam while the other was working her way back from an extended period off court due to injuries.

Those circumstances meant the two were no longer meeting in finals, but rather for intense early-round scrimmages in both Madrid and Paris, where Williams would win in three sets.

Their quarterfinal Wimbledon clash came with added significance for Serena, who was not only undefeated at majors in 2015, but also three wins from a second “Serena Slam,” dating back to her 18th major win at the US Open the previous summer.

Where 2002-2003 was a masterclass of pace and precision, 2014-2015 saw Serena in her share of scraps, needing five three-setters to capture a third Roland Garros title two weeks earlier. Barring an epic meeting with home favorite Heather Watson, things had gone more smoothly at SW19, and she arrived in the last eight fresh off a decisive win over Venus.

I'm a big Victoria fan. Whenever I'm not at a tournament, I root for her. For me, I think she's just the ultimate competitor on the court and just really nice. She just leaves everything on the court and nothing personal, and everything off the court, she's just so, so professional and so nice. I mean, I really get along with her. She's just a great person. Serena Williams on Victoria Azarenka

With Williams’ former hitting partner Sascha Bajin cheering from the stands, Azarenka looked to repeat her near-success in Paris when she surged through the opening set, taking the opportunities out of the American’s hands to edge within four games of victory.

On a surface that rewards Williams’ awe-inspiring pace, the top seed began injecting it more and more in the second-set rallies—seemingly out of frustration and a refusal to play the match on Azarenka’s terms.

The match turned on a break point for Serena, who pulled off an audacious passing shot she knew she’d made before Azarenka could even miss the reply, bringing the Centre Court crowd to its feet.

Though Azarenka would force a break point in the following game, little appeared in doubt once Williams was on the ascendency, ultimately securing a 26th straight major match win, 3-6, 6-2, 6-3 behind some scintillating tennis.

“It was really fun out there. I found myself smiling out there and I even saw Victoria smiling as well,” Serena said after the match. “It was such a great atmosphere to be out there playing and doing the best we can. I think we both really enjoyed it.”

The party continued for Serena through the end of the fortnight with a straightforward win over Sharapova and after a tense two-setter over finals debutante Garbiñe Muguruza. A second “Serena Slam” was finally in the books.

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Williams' head-to-head with Azarenka currently stands at 18-5.

Williams' head-to-head with Azarenka currently stands at 18-5.

THE MEANING: Both Serena and “Vika” would become mothers in the two years that followed, reducing their rivalry down to four matches in the last six years. Azarenka at last upset Williams at a major last summer at the US Open, rallying from a set down in a rare reversal for the two friends.

As for Serena, the quest for a Calendar Year Grand Slam would end just two matches from the finish line in an unforgettable defeat to an inspired Roberta Vinci, but there were still more worlds for Williams to conquer. She would tie Steffi Graf’s Open Era record with a 22nd major title at the 2016 Wimbledon Champions and surpass the German in Melbourne six months later before going on maternity leave in 2017.

Her 2018 comeback is too often overshadowed by major final defeats that would match the mirage set by Margaret Court back before 128-draws and meaningful participation at the Australian Open. To best answer the GOAT question, one is best served by a holistic approach: majors won, but also impact felt. Serena Williams made a seismic shift on women’s tennis and pop culture. She is cited in academic essays, TV shows, and chart-topping hits; she is the athlete those who follow her aspire to be.

As the clock strikes on her 40th birthday, Serena need not celebrate herself, and instead allow us to give her the flowers she so richly deserves.