When Serena Williams was 16 years old, she wore beads in her hair and beat Monica Seles. Two years later, she won her first top-tier tournament by defeating the great Steffi Graf in a “tense” final. She lost to Arantxa Sánchez Vicario a few times, beat Mary Pierce, and had an ongoing rivalry with Martina Hingis, the no. 1–ranked teen phenom who was just a year older than Williams. And during all this, she was still often regarded as Venus’s lil’ sis’ — not even the best player in her own lively family.
A number of the women from her past were present on Saturday as Williams overpowered Angelique Kerber, 7–5, 6–3, to win her seventh Wimbledon and tie Graf’s modern record of 22 Grand Slam victories. Given the setting and the people involved, it had the feel of a coronation. Hingis and Sánchez Vicario watched from the Royal Box, as did Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova. Over in the one true royal box, the one belonging to House Williams, Venus sat near Beyoncé and Jay Z. On Thursday, Duchess Kate had come to see the ladies’ semifinals and wound up smiling for her first Snapchat: a selfie with Serena. “I’m in the in-crowd now,” Serena said. “I’m with royalty.”
But only one of these two women is already a queen, and long has she reigned. After that semifinal match against Elena Vesnina, which Williams won 6–2, 6–0 in a tidy 48 minutes, a reporter asked what she thought about talk of her being one of the great female athletes in history. “I prefer the words ‘one of the greatest athletes of all time,’” Williams replied.
At this point, it’s getting difficult to find anyone except strawmen who would disagree. Standards for her are so lofty, because her high-water marks are so far over anyone’s heads. She’s reached seven of the past eight Grand Slam finals. She’s returned from scary setbacks and powered through nonsense the way she moves through a draw. Her consistent success is unprecedented at her age: As Sports Illustrated’s Jon Wertheim pointed out, Graf won zero of her 22 Grand Slams in her 30s; Williams has won nine. At this point, when Williams loses in a Grand Slam final, as she did earlier this year in the Australian and French Opens, it comes as a surprise. Last year, when Williams fell in the U.S. Open semifinals, it felt like an outright shock.
It was Kerber who beat Williams earlier this year in Australia, and who eliminated the chance for a Wimbledon sibling rivalry when she advanced over Venus in the semifinals on Thursday. And several times in Saturday’s championship match, it appeared that the no. 4–seeded German was again doing what she does best — getting to every ball, punching back, making Williams work for it. The first set was tight throughout, but it wasn’t until midway through the second set, with the score at three games apiece, that Williams, after a double fault and two unforced errors, found herself in a bit of a jam.
Facing down her first break point of the match, Williams responded with back-to-back aces. She won a third point to hold serve, broke Kerber in the next game, and never looked back.
“I’ve been working at this since I was 3 years old,” Williams had said on Thursday. She paused, and thought about it some more. “Actually? Maybe younger. Because I have a picture where I’m in a stroller. I think Venus is actually pushing me, and we’re on the tennis court. Basically, my whole life I’ve been doing this. I haven’t had a life.”
Oh, but she has, and she’s breathed it into everything around her as well. The Age of Serena has been marked by tragedy and controversy, beauty and power, championship silver and Olympic gold. (She plans to compete in Rio next month.) Serena has giggled and growled and blown kisses and parlé en français and threatened to shove tennis balls into expletive faces. Once a usurper, it’s now hard to imagine anyone else on the throne. She has those 22 Grand Slam wins to her name, and that doesn’t even include her 16 titles in ladies and mixed doubles. Hours after winning Wimbledon on Saturday, she was back on the court, with Venus, winning the doubles championship game.
“For me, it’s about holding the trophy,” she had said on Thursday, shrugging off suggestions that just getting to yet another major final was impressive on its own. “For me, it’s not enough. But I think that’s what makes me different. That’s what makes me Serena.”