By Jueseppi B.
By Douglas Robson, Special for USA TODAY
WIMBLEDON, England – Agnieszka Radwanska rode her anticipation, crafty counterpunching and sleight-of-hand shotmaking to the brink of No. 1 and the Wimbledon final.
So what did Williams do on a crucial break point? She sent a withering forehand drop shot winner over the net that left Radwanska dead in her tracks.
PHOTOS: The top shots from Wimbledon
“She has good hands as well,” Radwanska said later, “so she can do those kinds of things.”
Williams instinctively raised her arms in triumph, though it wasn’t over — Williams led 5-2. But it was.
The best server in the history of women’s tennis now had two chances to serve out the match. She needed just one.
Not long after, Williams, who never has followed any script but her own, was holding the Venus Rosewater dish for a fifth Wimbledon title and 14th major overall.
“I can’t even describe it,” said Williams after her 6-1, 5-7, 6-2 defeat of the third-seeded Radwanska, which ended two years of Grand Slamdrought after a series of accidents, injuries and illness. “I almost didn’t make it. A few years ago, I was in the hospital, and now I’m here again. It’s so worth it, and I’m so happy.”
Sure, there was plenty of muscle from the reigning ace machine, including a nerve calming “golden game” early in the third set in which in she fired four consecutive aces.
Going into final, one in five of her serves had been aces. On Saturday, she smacked another 17 for a Wimbledon-record 102 for the tournament, 13 more than she hit in 2010, the previous high mark.
“My serve really helped me throughout this tournament, I think,” Williams said. “I just had the rhythm, kind of felt it.”
With her fifth title, Williams tied sister Venus, who looked on from the player’s box.
Williams, who turns 31 in September, also become the first woman past 30 to win a major since Martina Navratilova 22 years ago. Navratilova was 33 when she won her final Wimbledon in 1990.
Williams, seeded sixth, ripped through the first set in 36 minutes as a shaky Radwanska, playing in her maiden Grand Slam final, struggled to find her range.
Rains hit, and though the retractable roof stayed open, a 24-minute rain delay between the first and second sets calmed the 23-year-old’s nerves. Radwanska started to do what she does best — goad opponents into mistakes with an array of clever spins, angles and long rallies.
Williams also started to miss — on groundstrokes, overheads, even on her vaunted first serve. When Radwanska finally broke though in the eighth game to level the set 4-4, Williams got tight.
“She started playing excellent grass-court tennis, getting a lot of balls back, and I panicked a little bit,” Williams said.
Radwanska staved off three break points in her first two service games to start the third set.
But Williams’ jitters calmed on her next service game: four consecutive aces in 49 seconds to even it at 2-2. It was the psychological balm she needed — the same security blanket that had helped her fight through several close matches the first week of the fortnight.
With renewed aggression, she broke Radwanska twice more, running off the last four games to complete the win.
Williams won all 10 points in the third set when she got her first serve in, and finished with 58 winners to 13 for Radwanska, who was battling a respiratory illness.
“It’s her weapon, the serve,” said the Pole, who will climb to No. 2 in the rankings behind Victoria Azarenka of Belarus on Monday. “That’s why she won the tournament five times already.”
If she stays healthy, there likely will be more. But unlike some of the American’s other comebacks, this road was longer, and tougher.
Shortly after winning the 2010 Wimbledon title, Williams cut her foot on glass at a Munich restaurant. Two surgeries in the fall followed, one to repair a severed tendon.
Six months later she suffered a dangerous pulmonary embolism, or blood clot, that traveled from her leg to her lungs. She then was hospitalized to remove a grapefruit-sized hematoma from her stomach.
On the court, some signs of vulnerability showed up, too.
She imploded in a spasm of anger at the 2011 U.S. Open, where she lost to Samantha Stosur, and just last month she crashed out of theFrench Open in the first round, the only opening-round loss at a major in her career.
She had arrived in Paris on the heels of a 17-match winning streak and, in another display of edgy nerves, let a lead slip to 111th-ranked Virginie Razzano of France.
“I was undefeated on clay,” Williams said. “I had a lot of confidence. You know, when I lost that, that really got me down.”
Instead of returning immediately to the USA, Williams remained in Paris, where she owns an apartment, to pick up the pieces.
“I think that was probably one of the hardest losses that she’s ever hard,” said her half-sister, Isha Price, who stayed behind in France to console her. “I couldn’t leave her. She was tripping.”
But she returned to the court, training at an academy run by Patrick Mouratoglou on the outskirts of Paris. Then she let her racket do the talking.
“Champions, when they got hurt, they react,” said Mouratoglou, who was a regular in her box in London. “I think the best reaction is to win the Grand Slam that comes right after this one, and she did it.”
It was a cathartic victory.
After match point, Williams dropped her racket, slipped on the worn grass near the baseline and covered her face, lingering for a few seconds to soak it in.
She then climbed up in the players’ box to share hugs with her team, and she choked up during her on-court interview when thanking the various members of her family and entourage for standing by her side.
“If she hadn’t won this (match) I think we would have had to put her in an institution,” laughed her mother, Oracene Price, afterward.
Williams also made a poignant on-court gesture to Venus, her best friend and protector, who revealed last year that she suffers from Sjogren’s syndrome, an autoimmune disorder that saps her energy.
“I had to copy you again,” she said of the five Wimbledon singles titles they each own. “Sorry.”
Later, she told a small group of reporters: “It’s really encouraging for me to stay with her like I do, to be around her and really appreciate, gosh I’m healthy. I can do this for both of us.”
Williams owns two gold medals with Venus in doubles, but a singles medal is one of the few trophies missing from her cache.
“This will give her a lot of confidence, and Serena with confidence is a scary proposition because then she lets loose,” ESPN’s Mary Joe Fernandez said.
Her return to the winner’s circle likewise is a positive omen for the summer, where she will resume her assault on the record books at the U.S. Open.
“If she stays healthy, she at her best is the best,” added Fernandez, also the U.S. Fed Cup captain. “She has so many weapons between her movement and her serves and her returns. It’s hard to see her not winning another big one. I’m thinking this will alleviate some of that anxiety.”
A healthy Williams, who will rise to No. 4 in the rankings, should provide more ballast to a women’s game that has seen seven different Grand Slam champions in a row.
“She’s a fresh 30,” Navratilova said. “I played about twice as many matches at this age. If she stays healthy with that serve, the sky’s the limit.”
Navratilova, who with Chris Evert won 18 major singles titles, are next in line in the record books.
Asked if she could be caught, Navratilova didn’t hesitate.
“I wouldn’t put it past her,” she said.
Serena Williams in Grand Slam finals
Won 14, Lost 4
1999 U.S. Open — def. Martina Hingis, 6-3, 7-6 (4).
2001 U.S. Open — lost to Venus Williams, 6-2, 6-4.
2002 French Open — def. V.Williams, 7-5, 6-3.
2002 Wimbledon — def. V.Williams, 7-6 (4), 6-3.
2002 U.S. Open — def. V.Williams, 6-4, 6-3.
2003 Australian Open— def. V.Williams, 7-6 (4), 3-6, 6-4.
2003 Wimbledon — def. V.Williams, 4-6, 6-4, 6-2.
2004 Wimbledon — lost to Maria Sharapova, 6-1, 6-4.
2005 Australian Open — def. Lindsay Davenport, 2-6, 6-3, 6-0.
2007 Australian Open — def. Sharapova, 6-1, 6-2.
2008 Wimbledon — lost to V.Williams, 7-5, 6-4.
2008 U.S. Open — def. Jelena Jankovic, 6-4, 7-5.
2009 Australian Open — def. Dinara Safina, 6-0, 6-3.
2009 Wimbledon — def. V.Williams, 7-6 (3), 6-2.
2010 Australian Open — def. Justine Henin, 6-4, 3-6, 6-2.
2010 Wimbledon — def. Vera Zvonareva, 6-3, 6-2.
2011 U.S. Open — lost to Sam Stosur, 6-2, 6-3.
2012 Wimbledon — def. Agnieszka Radwanska, 6-1, 5-7, 6-2.
Congratulations Ms. Williams.