The fall and rise of maturing Serena Williams

By her own definition then, and indeed by a near unanimous vote, Serena Williams is one of the greatest champions tennis has seen, male or female.

Serena Williams seems to appreciate winning titles since coming back from injury.
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Serena Williams spent a few moments reflecting on her great but tumultuous career after her stirring win over Victoria Azarenka, the first US Open women's final in 17 years to be decided in three sets.

"I really think a champion is defined not by their wins but by how they can recover when they fall," she said.

"I have fallen several times. Each time I just get up and dust myself off and I pray, and I'm able to do better or I'm able to get back to the level that I want to be on.

"For me, you see great people like Muhammad Ali, for instance, who is a complete person I have always looked up to in sports. He went to jail for so long and he came back as a champion again. So ... that really defines a champion."

By her own definition then, and indeed by a near unanimous vote, Williams is one of the greatest champions this sport has seen, male or female. There are still a few greats who have more grand slam singles trophies at home than Williams (15 and counting).

Margaret Court (24) is nine ahead of her on the all-time grand slam leader board; Steffi Graf (22), Helen Wills (19), Martina Navratilova (18) and Chris Evert (18) are above her as well. But have they, barring Navratilova perhaps, faced the kind of challenges that Serena has?

Making her first appearance at a professional event in 1995 at the age of 13, Williams has seen it all.

She has experienced the howls of "home" fans at tournaments in the US and the murder of a sister.

There have been plenty of controversies and injuries along the way.

And the question of race has been present right through.

"Because we'd play against [Kim] Clijsters or whoever else, and all these people weren't ready for us to win or they were rooting against us," Serena said on Friday. "It was always strange to me.

"You never know the reasons: because we're black in a white sport? I don't know. But we're the first African-Americans to really dominate in this sport and you can't expect everything to be perfect and whoo-whoo! - like, everyone to be so accepting so fast.

"Maybe things have to grow."

There has been a welcome change on that front this year. Fans at the Arthur Ashe Stadium have stood firmly behind Williams and her older sister, Venus. "The first time I've ever played here that the crowd has been behind me like that," Venus said after her second round loss. "Today I felt American for the first time at the US Open."

The lack of support did not stop the two sisters from winning.

Health and motivation have been the bigger problems in recent times. Eighteen months ago, Serena was diagnosed with a life-threatening pulmonary embolism and subsequently haematoma.

She had earlier missed the second half of 2010 after stepping on broken glass at a restaurant in Munich.

Venus too is battling to overcome Sjogren's syndrome, which causes sever fatigue.

Serena returned to the tour almost a year later, but few thought she would ever reach these stratospheric heights again. The turning point was her first-round loss at the French Open, her earliest loss at a grand slam.

"It's like I gave her a big slap," said France's Virginie Razzano, who defeated Serena in Paris. "I saw her at Wimbledon, and she gave me a very dark look. "Then I saw her again here, and you know what? She's still bitter. Either she drops her eyes, or she looks at me, and the look basically says, 'I can't wait to play you again, and this time I will take my revenge'."

If her performance since Paris is an indication, that defeat has certainly jolted Williams out of her comfort zone.

She has won the Wimbledon and US Open titles and the Olympic singles gold since.

"As much as I hate to lose, sometimes it's good for my game and my motivation," Williams said. "So I think, for sure, that loss helped me. I have never been so miserable after a loss."

According to Billie Jean King, a former tennis star who often counsels Serena, there are other reasons as well. "I think she's very appreciative of her good health now with what she went through and also what her sister is going through," King said.

"And she is maturing as a person, and you start to appreciate things in a different way as you grow."

Williams is certainly loving her tennis at the moment and has no plans to retire any time soon, although she turns 31 later this month.

"Even though I'm 30, I feel so young," she said.

"I've never felt as fit and more excited and more hungry. With Andy [Roddick] gone and Kim [Clijsters] leaving, it made me feel like I need to stay. For the game. For this generation. I'm healthy. I'm fine. I'm playing pretty good. Why not?"