Wimbledon champ Serena Williams reclaims aura of dominance

LONDON -- The score was 3-3 in the second set of the Wimbledon final when Serena Williams ended yet another fierce rally with a backhand that sailed wide of the line. Angelique Kerber had her first break point of the match.

It seemed a monumental achievement. The roar of Wimbledon's Centre Court crowd sounded like a rogue wave crashing on a rocky beach.

Williams turned to the ball kid, devoid of expression. Kerber made a fist, shook it like a person about to shoot dice and dropped to her receiving crouch in the ad-court. She clutched her racket handle with both hands, thrust her jaw forward and swayed gently, ready to pounce.

Eyes downcast, Williams stepped to the line. She tossed the ball and exploded up, the racket a dark blur against the grassy lime-green background. There was nothing for Kerber to pounce on.

A 117-mph ace flew by on Kerber's backhand side. As she crossed to the deuce court, Kerber tilted her head back and gazed deep into the sky, dispirited.

At deuce, Williams dialed it up and cracked her fastest serve of the match, 124 mph. She saved the game, broke Kerber and closed out the match. She finally won that elusive 22nd Grand Slam singles title that equaled Steffi Graf's Open era record.

"This is how Serena is playing," Kerber marveled, after taking the 7-5, 6-3 loss in 1 hour, 21 minutes. "I had one break point, and I couldn't do nothing. Serena was serving unbelievable today."

The score and elapsed time might not suggest it, but the match was close and played at a high level by both women, particularly Williams.

A pitch-perfect performance was certainly something she has earned. That 22nd title is such a shiny thing, such a pretty and unique thing. But it has cost Williams dearly, going all the way back to her puzzling loss to Roberta Vinci in the semifinals of the US Open. At that event, Williams was attempting to complete a calendar-year Grand Slam as well as secure title No. 22.

Williams faltered and didn't find her secure champion's footing again until she was back on Wimbledon turf. She was upset by Kerber in the Australian Open final, and a French Open title was stripped away by Garbine Muguruza.

For a good part of the past year, Williams visibly struggled with her emotions. She seemed to forget how much better she has always been than anyone else. She squandered an important psychological advantage. At Wimbledon this fortnight, she finally remembered. She projected an aura of calm assurance and reclaimed superiority all week.

"I have definitely had some sleepless nights, if I'm just honest, with a lot of stuff," Williams said. "Coming so close. Feeling it, not being able to quite get there. ... I've just felt a lot of pressure, I guess. I put a lot of that pressure on myself. Obviously had some really tough losses."

The cumulative effect of all those brushes with destiny was the gradual erosion of her confidence. She retreated a bit into herself during her long struggle. Her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, noticed. He told anyone who asked, or was willing to listen, that Williams just wasn't herself. He waited for her to snap out of it.

"Sometime after the French Open, we were talking, talking about things and strategizing," Williams said. "[Patrick] just said, 'You're back.' I guess he was right."

Williams recovered her composure by taking a helicopter view of her recent past. She realized that she was still getting to finals, including the first two this year. She has been in the final of seven of the past eight majors.

"It's pretty impressive," Williams said. "I had to start looking at the positives, not focusing on that one loss per tournament. Once I [did that], I realized that I'm pretty good. I started playing better."

"Better" is an inadequate word to describe the way Williams played her second-week matches at Wimbledon. She was superb. She's in a different place now, mentally and emotionally. She isn't likely to get sucked into those black holes of anxiety in the future, even if her mission to win at least one Grand Slam title per year continues.

And there is that hunt for the all-time singles title of 24, held by Margaret Court. Is Williams concerned that people will start asking about that now?

"No, no," she said. "I've learned a lot about 22. I learned not to get involved in those debates and conversations. I just learned to just play tennis. That's what I do best."

Better than anyone else, perhaps ever.