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Serena Williams Ties Graf’s Majors Record Thanks To A Remarkable Run In Her 30s

On May 29, 2012 — four years before her record-tying win Saturday in the Wimbledon final — Serena Williams looked further from Steffi Graf’s Open-era record 22 Grand Slam titles than she had in a decade. On that day, Williams, ranked fifth in the world, was facing No. 111 Virginie Razzano. Razzano, a Frenchwoman, was playing in front of a home crowd a year after her fiance and former coach had died of cancer. Williams had won every one of the 46 first-round Grand Slam matches she’d played. But Razzano upset her in three sets. Williams’s Grand Slam title drought extended to nearly two years.

Williams was 30 years old, and older than Graf was when she’d won her 22nd major. Williams had 13. Graf had spent 186 straight weeks at No. 1 in her prime. Williams had never managed to stay there more than 57 weeks in a row. After her loss, a reporter asked her about Razzano’s personal tragedy. Williams pointed out that she’d come back from her own health scares, and her sister was playing with a fatigue-inducing syndrome. “I know her story,” Williams said. “We all have stories. I mean, I almost died and Venus is struggling herself. It’s life. It just depends on how you deal with it.”

The way Williams has dealt with that loss is breathtaking. Soon after, she began working with coach Patrick Mouratoglou. She worked on her fitness and her tactics, and she made her strengths stronger, somehow improving what was already the best serve in the sport. She has won nine of 17 majors since that loss, after beating Angelique Kerber in the Wimbledon final, 7-5, 6-3, on Saturday.

Williams has made up for lost time. She’d been well behind the pace of Graf and other all-time greats in majors. But her nine majors since turning 30 are one more than the combined total won by Graf, Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova and Margaret Court in their 30s. Williams is now almost 35 — a year older than Navratilova was when she won her final major title.

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The media often call her queen, but unlike her Wimbledon Snapchat companion, Serena Williams isn’t royalty. She’s an athlete. She didn’t achieve her reign by birth or marriage. She earned it, and it was never guaranteed. Her achievement of 22 major titles is also the story of the 42 majors she entered and didn’t win, including the last three before this year’s Wimbledon. All three times she came so close to winning, reaching the last round or two, and then ran into an inspired, fearless opponent. She did again today, and won anyway.

“It makes the victory even sweeter to know how hard I worked for it,” she said in her on-court interview after the Wimbledon final with the BBC’s Sue Barker.

So now Serena Williams has a share of the Open-era record. Win one more, as she’s favored to do at the U.S. Open in New York later this summer, and she’ll have that record to herself. It’ll be far tougher to drop the “Open-era” modifier from her achievement, though: She’s three away from passing Margaret Court.

So why do so many tennis fans treat Graf’s record as the real one to beat? Because Court won her majors in an era that was different in more than name: smaller draws, drawing on less global talent from fewer places, at events played by amateurs until the majors started paying prize money in 1968, the start of the Open era. Court’s first major title came in Australia in 1960. Just 32 women were in the draw, from just three different countries. Her last major title came at the 1973 U.S. Open, with 11 countries represented among the 64 players in the draw. Williams’s first major came in New York 26 years later. There were 128 women in the draw, from 38 countries.

Williams is facing a world of women eager to beat her and claim fame and fortune in the sport that pays women the most. Many of her rivals are younger than her by a decade or more. Yet she continues to dominate. She has been No. 1 for the last three and a half years. And she can break Graf’s record for consecutive weeks at No. 1 at around the time she might break Graf’s record for majors later this summer.

Carl Bialik was FiveThirtyEight’s lead writer for news.

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