Her this-generation rival, Victoria Azarenka, had held the spot for the past 51 weeks after avoiding a near-miss of losing it at the Australian open by taking home the hardware for the second time and after Williams lost to youngster Sloane Stephens.
In a must win match in Doha at the 2013 Qatar Open, she valiantly fought off an on-fire former Wimbledon winner, Petra Kvitova of Czechoslovakia, and a nagging head cold to reclaim the spot at the top of the talented heap. Williams struggled early during the match, battling a lower than usual first serve percentage and watching her second serve meet with punishment from the hard-hitting and confident Czech. After dropping her own serve once and watching several winners and unreturnable serves wiz past her, she ultimately dropped the set – her first of the tournament, 3-6. The second set, however, took a turn in her favor.
Kvitova, who had never previously taken a set off her, was matching Serena’s game up to that point and 6 games into the second. She hung with her serve for serve, groundstroke for groundstroke and return for return, but one service game hiccup in the seventh gave Serena the momentum she needed to edge the persistent world no. 8 for the set, 6-3, and level the match at two sets all. Williams upped her first serve percentage points won a touch from 64% to 74% and Kvitova’s 1st serve percentage dropped from 55% to just 48%. Usually a solid frontrunner when momentum is on her side, Williams fans breathed a sigh of relief … but the ladies forgot to read the script.
The opening service game in set three easily went to Kvitova, due to Serena’s match-long struggle with keeping her returns and groundstrokes insie the court. And in that vein, Serena’s opening service game wasn’t as straightforward and she ultimately dropped it, giving the Czech the lead, 2-0. It was a critical misstep in the deciding set of such an important match. But tennis isn’t all about the the skill; it’s about as much about the determination.
Serena fought off her erratic emotions that had been on display during the match as she struggled and ratcheted up her characteristic fight. She hunkered down and broke the serve – a rarity in the tough match – of her lefty opponent to achieve a score line of 1-2, still in Kvitova’s favor, however. Williams was back on serve with a chance to level the set … BUT, she dropped serve again, losing the next two games for a scoreline of 1-4. Too many openings for one as dangerous as Kvitova would signal sure death for most of her opponents, but there is something to be said for the comeback ability of a 15-time Grand Slam champion.
Serena managed to dig deep and claw her way back to even the set at 5 all with a nervous double fault from Kvitova and her own amazing cross-court winner, then broke Kvitova’s serve again to set herself up to serve for the set and the match at 6-5. Known for possessing the best serve in the history of women’s tennis, she called upon her gift to emphatically close out the match with three unreturnables and a down-the-T ace, holding her opponent at 15. Game, set, match … and a new world ranking of no. 1.
The final score line was 3-6, 6-3, 7-5 with 14 aces.
Serena had downplayed what returning to the no. 1 spot meant to her during pressers early in the tournament, but it was evident once the last ball was struck how much it actually did. She dropped to her knees and tears began to stream down her face as she hoisted her “no. 1” finger in the air. She had not only returned to her position of ranking dominance after besetting health scares during this back end of her career, but she had also set a new world record, becoming the first 31-year-old and oldest tennis player – replacing Chris Everett – in the open era to hold the spot. The tears continued to flow as she thanked Jehovah and the supportive Doha fans, stating, “I never thought I’d be here again and I’m just so thankful … I heard the fans cheering for me and I usually don’t get that kind of support.”
It’s less climactic at this point, but the win also earned her a semifinal berth, where she’ll play her last-generation rival, Maria Sharapova, for a spot in the Qatar Open final. Win or lose, she’ll walk away with her new ranking secured.