As Serena, 22-time Grand Slam champion and arguably, the greatest female tennis player of all time, turns 35 today, we present the 5 most grueling encounters and mind-boggling comebacks in Serena’s long and illustrious career.
1. vs. Clijsters, 2003 Australian Open, SF
Quality of opponent, stage of the tournament, and context of her career – this match had some of the highest stakes and Williams found a way to win it. A young, in-form Kim Clijsters was the World No.1’s opponent that day at the Australian Open, in the semifinals of a tournament that the American needed to win to capture a historic fourth major in a row.
Clijsters had lost a mere fifteen games en route to the semis, and mounted a 5-1 lead in the final set against Williams after a tightly contested first two sets. There’s clearly something in the Australian air that inspires Williams, allowing her to save two match points and win the next six games, taking the match, 4-6, 6-3, 7-5. The World No. 1 would go on to play an equally competitive match against sister Venus in the final, eventually succeeding in achieving the “Serena Slam.”
2. vs. Azarenka, 2010 Australian Open, QF
Victoria Azarenka, once known for the fiery temper to match her fiery style of tennis, was on the cusp of a statement win over Williams. In the scorching heat of the Australian sun, she repeated her 2009 feat of taking the first set (she would retire from that match with heat exhaustion).
This time, however, she built a 4-0 lead in the second and seemed to be sprinting towards the finish line against erratic opposition. Yet, Serena slowly clawed her way back to a tiebreak, emphatically winning it before easily taking the third set and the match 4-6 7-6(2) 6-2 , completing one of her most impressive comebacks by the numbers – and the stat sheet.
3. vs. Sharapova, 2005 Australian Open, SF
Many fans might agree that this was the match that ended the Williams-Sharapova rivalry – on only its fourth encounter. The tale is one we’ve heard before. Some inspired play by an aggressive and fearless Sharapova claimed the first set, and she would go on to serve for the match at 5-4 in the second.
Given her current 19-2 head-to-head record, Serena finding a way to beat Sharapova has become NID (never-in-doubt) in 2016. Ten years ago, it was a paltry 1-2. The American raised her level and hit all the lines in a dramatic, high quality semifinal affair that saw her steal the second set and even save match points in the third. The American would go on to win, 2-6, 7-5, 8-6, in a resounding display of mental resolve that would come to define her mastery over Sharapova for a decade to come.
4. vs. Kuznetsova, 2013 French Open QF
Coming into the tournament, Williams hadn’t won the French Open in eleven years – despite claiming many other prestigious clay titles since. Having rolled through her first four matches, she appeared to face little resistance during the first set from former champion, Svetlana Kuznetsova.
The second set was a different story, as the Russian unleashed her vicious forehand to steal the set and mount a 2-0 lead in the third – with break points for a seemingly insurmountable double-break lead. Yet the World No. 1, once again, found form in a hopeless place, winning the next five games to eventually crush her opponent’s bid, 6-1, 3-6, 6-3 and to go on to win that elusive second French Open title.
5. vs. Dementieva, 2009 Wimbledon SF
In arguably the match of 2009, Elena Dementieva looked poised to make her first Slam final in nearly five years. Williams had other plans. The defending finalist dropped the first set (yet again – see a pattern?) and fought through gritty, determined play from her Russian rival, who had won three of their last four meetings, including a three-setter at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Saving a match point late in the third set, Williams scrapped until the end, eventually taking the win, 6-7(4), 7-5, 8-6 – and the whole tournament two days later.