Return To The Top

Serena Williams proved Friday night what we already knew: That when she's playing her best, no one can touch her. In a breathtaking performance, she stomped on, whipped, flogged—the thesaurus sure is fun in moments like these—the No. 1-ranked Maria Sharapova to win the Australian Open . Unseeded and ranked 81 at the start of the tournament, Serena's own number zoomed up to 14 by its thrilling end. Sharapova retains the top slot in the computer, but last night was its own verdict.

It's been a difficult two years for Serena, since her last win in 2005. In 2003 she had surgery to fix an injured knee. Then, while she was home in Florida recovering , her half-sister, Yetunde Price, was killed in a drive-by shooting in Los Angeles. After that, Serena's game has never quite been the same—the dominance was gone, the spark had flamed out. The knee kept nagging her, yes, but that seemed only half the struggle.

For her fans, these last few years have been especially trying. We worried that her knee would never fully heal. We hated seeing her trounced by her inferiors. We got angry at her opponents for daring to beat her. But mostly we were haunted by the suspicion that maybe Serena didn't care as much as we did. We knew that she had a real shot to become the best female player in history. But was she going to bother to do it? Opening, say, Us Magazine to find her photographed at some L.A. party was particularly tough for the faithful. Shouldn't she be home practicing?

My own inner marm was quelled a few years ago, when I spent several days with Serena for a profile for NEWSWEEK . She'd just had her surgery and was relishing her first real break from the game since she was a little girl. She considered it a blessing. After all, by the time she was eight years old, she was spending her entire summer swatting a ball back and forth with her sister Venus on the hot, litter-strewn public courts of Compton. Her father Richard was inviting reporters to their house to meet his two stars-in-the-making. By 2003, she'd earned this time off.

She had undergone the surgery just after capturing all four grand slam titles in a row. Though her ranking was already slipping, she seemed more concerned with improving her acting ability. She filmed an episode of a since-cancelled Showtime series called "Street Time" and was working with New Line to develop a film she'd star in. She'd also just launched a fashion line, called Aneres—Serena spelled backward. Her sister Venus modeled the designs at a fashion show in L.A.

The sisters had hung giant posters of themselves on the walls of their Florida house. But these weren't shots of their championships. No, the photos were of the two of them dolled up in lipstick and evening gowns, souvenirs from a fashion magazine shoot. The day I was there, her powder-pink Manolo Blahniks had just arrived by mail. Serena cooed, "They're so hot, oh, they're so hot, oh, they're so hot." She spent the day posing for another fashion shoot, this time for a local Florida magazine. She giggled away on her cell phone as a stylist curled and sprayed her hair. She and Venus conferred about what they should wear that night; they whispered secrets in each other's ears. She seemed to be living out the childhood she'd had to skip during all those years on the court. It was as if she had to become an international sports star to get to be a typical American teenager. So as she stayed away from the game these last two years—she competed in only 14 tournaments—you had to be a little happy for her that she got to have a life.

But even at the height of her girlie-girl fun, she remained competitive. She may have been drawn to bubblegum, but she still loved winning. She said there was nothing like that first grand slam victory, but she also appreciated dominance. "The last slam was more like, 'I'm the boss. Yeah, yeah, you try, but I'm the boss.' I like that."

Over the last two years, the boss had seemed to have retired. But Friday night, there she was again, our girl, our CEO. She reminded us—and maybe herself—how much she loves the business of cleaning clocks. Throughout the tournament, commentators called her overweight, pointed out her huffing and puffing, and asked, How could she win being so unfit? Last night, she answered their questions—and slapped her opponent silly for good measure.

I can't help worry, though, that she will feel, after last night's victory, that she can get away with not being all-that-focused on the game. She'd told me a few years ago that she didn't need to bother with the lesser tournaments: as long as she won the slams she could keep her top ranking, she reasoned. The last two years have shown, though, that that strategy doesn't always work. I wonder if she's learned that. But even if she doesn't make a full comeback, even if she never goes on to be the best female player ever, at least she gave us last night, the best, perhaps, she's ever been.