Two years after blood clots left her hospitalized and fighting for her life, Serena Williams has won her fifth singles title at Wimbledon. She capped off her remarkable comeback by defeating Poland‘s Agniezska Radwanska 6-1, 5-7, 6-2. “I can’t even describe it,” Williams said while fighting back tears during the presentation ceremony. “I almost didn’t make it a few years ago. I was in hospital, but I’m here again and it was worth it. I’m so happy.”
By raising the Venus Rosewater dish for a fifth time, Williams matches her sister’s record of five Wimbledon singles titles. “I’ve always wanted everything that Venus had,” she said. “Thank you for all of the advice you gave me during the rain delay. I had to copy you again.”
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Her reaction to the win was straightforward, but the match proved to be something of a roller coaster.
Williams, who was ousted in the first round of the French Open just five weeks ago, drove through the first set like a bulldozer. The 30-year old American fired canonballs that left Radwanksa looking visibly stunned. The match appeared so lop-sided that, during the final game of the first set, the audience actually applauded when Williams missed an overhead shot. She went on to win the set 6-1 anyway, and in just 36 minutes. During the twenty-minute rain delay after the set, commentators on the BBC fished out statistics about Grand Slam romps. The shortest Grand Slam match in history lasted 22 minutes; at least Radwanska would be spared that.
But Radwanksa, who had never reached a Grand Slam semi-final before this tournament, caught her breath during the break. Known more for her pluck than her power, she went on the attack and forced Williams off of cruise control. The American appeared more nervy than in the opener, and came off as sluggish when chasing down the ball. She ultimately committed 18 unforced errors in the set compared to Radwanska’s three. She also double-faulted on three occasions, helping Radwanska take the set 7-5.
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But Williams re-established her power game during the third set. In the second service game she fired four aces in a row. She won the game in just 49 seconds. It proved pivotal: She didn’t lost another game in the match.
Facing Williams in any Grand Slam final is intimidating. Entering today’s match she had already won 13 of the 18 major finals she had contested, and four of her six finals at Wimbledon. During her semi-final match against World No. 2 Victoria Azarenka on Thursday, she hit 24 aces. That’s more than twice as many as Radwanska had hit the entire tournament.
Illness made the challenge even greater for the 23-year old Pole. On Friday she cancelled her pre-final press conference. She also cut short her semi-final press conference the day before. “Unfortunately, I have picked up an upper respiratory illness, which is affecting my nose and throat,” she said in a statement. “I have been playing a lot of matches here in the rain and wind and haven’t been well for a few days.”
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Williams last major titles came at Wimbledon in 2010, when she breezed through the final against Vera Zvonareva. She won that match 6-3, 6-2, didn’t face a single break point, and, coupled with her win at the Australian Open just a few months earlier, seemed poised to dominate the tour for the rest of the year. But that summer she stepped on glass at a restaurant. Williams went through two operations and was hospitalized after suffering life-threatening blood clots in her lungs and a pulmonary embolism. She didn’t return to tennis until June 2011.
Given all that, today’s win is about much more than collecting hardware. “I really thought Serena was going to die,” her father and coach Richard Williams told the Associated Press recently. “This is the most important tournament that Serena would ever win … because Serena didn’t think she’d ever play tennis again.”
Now she’s playing—and winning, too. “I never dreamed of being here again,” she said after the match. “You just never give up. You can continue.”