At 31, Steffi Graf had already retired. At 31, Martina Navratilova was in the process of being surpassed by Graf. She, Billie Jean King, and Margaret Court would each win just one more slam after their 31st birthday.
At 30, it appeared Serena Williams was just about done, at least when it came to showing a consistently elite form. She had thoroughly dominated at Wimbledon in 2010 but suffered a freak foot injury stepping on broken glass; during her recovery she suffered a pulmonary embolism. She returned in the summer of 2011 but lost in the fourth round at Wimbledon, fell to Sam Stosur in the 2011 U.S. Open finals, and, in 2012, lost in the fourth round of the Australian Open and in the first round of the French Open.
And of course, Serena Williams still has plenty of upside remaining. At 30, however, we are probably going to see her reach that upside less and less. Case in point: her first-round loss in the 2012 French Open.
The 2012 clay court season has now proven two things about Serena Williams: 1. Her upside is still higher than anybody else's. 2. At 30 years old, she is more vulnerable to upsets now than she has ever been. Her dramatic, strange three-set loss to Virginie Razzano showed us a Serena as powerful as ever (she had 39 winners and won a solid 68 percent of points on her first serve); but the younger Williams' famous killer instinct was nowhere to be seen. She blew a 5-1 lead in the second-set tiebreaker, and she failed to take full advantage of Razzano's second serve down the stretch (she was tentative on quite a few opportunities in the final game). Her power game was sporadic (47 unforced errors), and Razzano was simply able to outlast her.
Serena Williams is still capable of complete dominance, but as she gets older, it is likely that she will find it more difficult to turn around poor stretches of play as quickly. She was emotional and, at the end, humble, and she even saluted a crowd that had completely turned on her as she was leaving. But that doesn't change the fact that her French Open 2012 is over and that she is no longer undefeated in first rounds of grand slams.
And I was justified in saying it! Really, I was! We'd barely seen her dominate in the past two calendar years. But then she hired Patrick Mouratoglou, former coach of players like Grigor Dimitrov, Jeremy Chardy, Marcos Baghdatis, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, and Laura Robson. The result: a turnaround reminiscent of when Brad Gilbert began coaching Andre Agassi.
Actually, it's been even better than that. Somewhere around the midpoint of Wimbledon 2012, things clicked. Williams needed three long sets to survive Jie Zheng (9-7 in the third) in the third round at the All-England Club, then needed another three to beat Yaroslava Shvedova (7-5 in the third) in the fourth round. But she took out Petra Kvitova and Victoria Azarenka in straight sets, then, after dropping the second set to Agnieszka Radwanska in the finals, plowed through a 6-2 third set to secure her fifth Wimbledon title. And she has proceeded to wipe the floor with the women's game over the ensuing 11 months. She was incredible in destroying the field in the Olympics, and she survived a mighty challenge from Azarenka in the U.S. Open finals.
She turned 31 in late-September of 2012, and nothing's changed. She didn't drop a set in winning the WTA Championship in October. She was nagged by an ankle injury in a quarterfinal loss to Sloane Stephens in the Australian Open, yes, but she is 33-1 since that loss. Azarenka took her down in Qatar in February, but not only has she won 28 straight WTA matches since then, but she's only dropped seven sets in the process. Oh, and 18 of these matches have taken place on clay, which has been by far her worst surface throughout her career. The clay gives opponents an opportunity to step back and retrieve balls they couldn't on other courts; it neutralizes her best weapons. But in the last month, she has taken on the No. 2, No. 3, and No. 4 clay court players in the world (according to Advanced Baseline); in those three matches, she has won her sets, 6-1, 6-3, 6-0, 6-1, 6-4, and 6-4.
On Saturday in Paris, Williams won her first French Open title since 2002. Again, this is her bad surface. The last time she won the French, she followed that up by completing a "Serena Slam," winning the next three slams in a row. She dropped two sets in Paris in 2002; she dropped one this time around.
At 31, Serena Williams is as dominant as she has ever been. She is just as physically imposing as ever, and she has evidently found her perfect coach. Injuries can, and will, still happen. But previous injuries and a schedule that is typically lighter than that of her peers has potentially kept a few miles off of her legs. She in no way looks or plays older than she did five years ago. Meanwhile, she simultaneously seems more accessible. (Though that might just be the Twitter smiley-faces talking.)
Yes, like Navratilova, King, and Court, she has just one post-31 slam. But are you going to bet against her winning another one? Are you going to bet against her winning the next one?
Meanwhile, you almost have to feel bad for Maria Sharapova. She has a lot to offer the game of tennis, and her resilience, her ability to mentally move past mistakes, is perhaps the best in the game. But there is nothing she can physically do that Serena Williams doesn't do a little bit better. She mentioned after her semifinal win that after years of being dominated by Serena, she would have to do something different this time around. That basically amounted to pumping herself up to a ridiculous degree, saying "Come on!" She played infinitely better against Williams than she had against Azarenka in the semifinals -- gone were the double faults and errors -- and it just didn't matter. Everything she did, Williams did better.
Or, to put it another way, Sharapova, the second-best clay court player in the world, could almost claim moral victory by winning eight games. Serena's that good right now.