No matter what her ranking is, Serena Williams remains for many the best women’s player on tour. But her return trip back to No. 1 for a sixth time this week punctuates yet another chapter in the stellar, yet at times tumultuous career for the 15-time Major champion.
July 8, 2002-August 10, 2003
Though she was already a force on tour for several years, it wasn’t until the “Serena Slam” that Williams was able to ascend to the top ranking for the first time in her career. By winning the 2002 French Open, Wimbledon, U.S. Open and then 2003 Australian Open, Williams made it almost look too easy being the best player in the game and appeared poised to dominate the WTA for several years.
But knee surgery forced her out of action midway through 2003 and caused her to lose her coveted top ranking – a position she wouldn’t hold for another five years.
September 8, 2008-October 5, 2008
The years leading up to Serena’s second trip to No. 1 were marked with personal tragedy and career setbacks. In late 2003, Serena dealt with the murder of her half-sister due to gang violence and then later faced continued knee problems that prevented her from competing at many events including the 2004 Athens Olympics.
By now Williams had other interests, business and personal, besides tennis. When she fell out of the top 100 in 2006, some thought she might leave the sport all together.
Despite critics saying her career was over, an out of shape, unseeded, but determined Williams blazed through the 2007 Australian Open and demolished Maria Sharapova in the finals.
Williams returned to the top ten and continued her rise to the elite tier in 2008. Her defeat of Jelena Jankovic in the U.S. Open finals that year pushed Williams back to No. 1 where she remained for four weeks.
February 2, 2009-April 19, 2009 and October 12, 2009-October 25, 2009:
Williams resumed racking up Major titles in 2009 as she won both the Australian Open and Wimbledon. But she spent most of the year trailing Dinara Safina for the top ranking, largely due to Safina playing events week in and week out while Williams mainly chose to compete at only the biggest tournaments.
This began a rather public debate over who really was No. 1 in the world — a debate Williams fueled by several comments she made after winning Wimbledon. Based on her decade of competing and the staggering amount of titles earned, Williams was now being viewed as not only the best player of her generation — but perhaps the greatest female player of all time.
Those accolades came to a crashing halt after Williams verbally abused a lineswoman during her U.S. Open semifinal against Kim Clijsters. Defaulted from the match, many in the sport called for Williams to be suspended for the upcoming Australian Open.
November 2, 2009-October 10, 2010
Though her public image took a hit after the U.S. Open, Williams finished 2009 ranked No. 1 and responded the best way she knew how by winning at the Majors.
She again tasted victory in Australia – this time against her long rival the recently un-retired Justine Henin. Williams then later in the summer put in a command performance to win Wimbledon. But while she was playing some of the best tennis of her career, once again injury dealt her an unexpected blow.
Williams cut her foot leaving a German nightclub – an injury that would force her to miss the rest of the season. The end of the year saw another consistent, yet a non-Major winner, in Caroline Wozniacki ascend to the top ranking. In the span of 12 months, Williams had going from being reviled to being solely missed as her return to action looked uncertain.
With Williams on the sidelines, the WTA went through an identity crisis with Wozniacki bearing the brunt of the criticism while others bemoaned the lack of any real rivalries. But Williams’s return to the tour almost didn’t happen when she suffered a life threatening pulmonary embolism in the spring of 2011.
She survived and made an emotional return at Wimbledon later that year. But it wasn’t until the following year when she won her fifth title at SW19 that Williams finally seemed truly back. Williams then proceeded on a near-perfect second half of the season, losing only once while winning the Summer Games, the U.S. Open and the YEC in Istanbul.
Those results help pushed her back up to No. 2 earlier in 2013 and then finally with her finals showing at Doha last week was she able to move one spot higher back to No. 1.
February 18, 2013-?
Williams and her emotional reaction to reaching No. 1 proved again how much she missed the sport and now truly relishes each moment spent on court. How long she can stay at the top spot is a good question, especially with Victoria Azarenka proving herself to be a true contender for all of the biggest titles and being one of the few women on tour with the game plus the belief that she can beat Williams.
But as the oldest woman ever to hold the WTA’s top ranking, Williams has proven her staying power despite injury, personal heartbreak or the younger opponents she now faces. When and where Williams chooses to end her standout career will be her decision alone, but when it does, don’t be surprised if her name is once again listed on top.