Serena Williams wore a victory smile in quiet, homely Mason on Sunday afternoon that will light up raucous Flushing Meadows without electrical help if she replicates the deed to seal a calendar grand slam in three weeks’ time.
On the verge of history she did not have a flawless dress rehearsal. However, having to fight for an hour and 49 minutes before subduing the combative challenge of Simona Halep 6-3, 7-6 to win the Cincinnati Masters for the second year in a row will certainly have alerted the American to the fine-tuning needed as she heads east for the US Open.
“I think everyone here knows there is room for improvement for me and I can do better,” she said. “Playing Simona really tested me and I felt like I was up for the challenge.”
Nerves invaded her work in a slow start and, in sight of the finish line, she battled to save eight of nine break points in the second set before closing it out. As ever, her booming serve was her insurance and she landed 15 aces but tried for a lot more.
Indeed, serving for the match in the tie-break, she went for a 125mph howitzer that would have been a spectacular full-stop to a patchy narrative had it not slid just outside the line. As it happened, the effort provided evidence that the elbow injury that has blighted her preparation this summer has eased. In the end, though, she had to settled for a limp, netted reply by her opponent before celebrating moments later, and the stands went wild.
There was big support for the home player obviously but a lot too for the Romanian, who seems to spread happiness wherever she goes with the sort of open-faced honesty rare in sport. Earlier Halep had remarked how Roger Federer was the only player she really liked to watch, to which the great man replied after winning the men’s title: “She’s very sweet, very nice. I am very happy she’s doing as well as she’s doing. She’s a great fighter.”
Williams commented courtside: “I gotta say I don’t get support whereever I play but I always get great support here. I love you.”
Later she spoke about the bigger challenge ahead – the biggest of her career, perhaps. “I’m ready. I don’t care if I win or lose or break even. I’m ready to start it, get it over with and be done and go on to the next event. But I’m so ready for New York. It’s all up to me. If I decide to play right, it’ll be great. If I decide to be Baby Rena, then... I saw someone write that on Instagram. I kind of liked that. They were calling me out but I was, like, ‘They’re right!’ So... yeah, hopefully Baby Rena won’t come out.”
Baby Rena has not been out for a while. After a mediocre 2014 Williams has set the tour alight this season, winning majors in Melbourne, Paris and Wimbledon. For all her claims about the legitimacy of the Serena Slam – owning all four titles simultaneously outside the fixed 12-month period – she knows this is the big one.
It will not be easy. And it will not be dull.
This article was written by Kevin Mitchell in Mason, for theguardian.com on Sunday 23rd August 2015 23.31 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010