© Julian Finney
By Matt Cronin
?CINCINNATI - There have been few times during her long and illustrious career when Serena Williams has appeared to be so consistently happy.
Perhaps it’s because she overcame a near death experience in the winter of 2011 and considers herself lucky to even have the chance to play the sport she loves, or perhaps it’s because the 30-year-old sees that there is more to life than just individual accomplishments and she can cheer for others just as hard as she roots for herself.
Whatever the case, Williams is beaming after her double gold medal run at the Olympics games, where she devastated the field in singles and then won the doubles with her older sister Venus.
"The Olympics you're playing really for your country; you're representing USA; you're rooting really hard for everyone that is American, whether it's in your sport or whether it's other sports," Serena said at the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati. "So it's a great team camaraderie feeling, and I love it. I didn't see the final medal [count], but I know at one point we were behind China. When I got my gold, I was like, ‘Yes, this totally helps.’ I added a medal to that medal count, too, so I was really proud of that."
Even though she is one of the most accomplished grass court players ever, Serena continues to say that she doesn't love the turf and is more than pleased to be back on hard courts. "We're now entering my realm," she said of the North American hard court season.
Just a few weeks ago, Williams won the Emirates Airline US Open Series tournament at Stanford on hard courts. Since April, she has compiled an impressive 34-1 record. She’s 44-3 on the year, only suffering losses to Ekaterina Makarova at the Australian Open, Caroline Wozniacki in Miami and Virginie Razzano at Roland Garros. As No. 7 Angelique Kerber observed in Cincinnati, if Serena is playing her best, she is the player to beat.
Serena sure seems motivated, even though with 14 Grand Slams titles she could retire tomorrow and still be considered an all-time great.
"I don't want to become satisfied," she said. "I want to keep doing more and more and more. I just don't want to be like, ‘Oh, I've done so much; why am I still playing? Retire, do something else. I love playing and walking out on the court and having that crowd clap for you and your opponent. That's a great feeling. Doesn't last forever. I'm stretching it out as long as I can."
Serena has never won Cincinnati but she is aiming to. She has won the US Open on three occasions, but has not raised the big trophy since 2008. Winning the US Open is her main goal this summer and it’s going to take a huge mental effort for her to pull it off, not because she isn’t capable of playing lights out tennis, but because in her past two appearances she admittedly lost her temper and eventually her form in losses to Kim Clysters and Samantha Stosur.
If she is going to triumph at the US Open she will have to collect herself in the big moments. She was too amped up in her loss to Clijsters in the 2009 semifinals, and the same could be said of her defeat to Stosur in the final last year.
She feels snake bitten in New York, so she is going to have to expect that unlike at the Olympics when she couldn’t miss a ball, there will be tough situations she will have to battle her way through.
"My mind frame this year is that something is going to happen for sure because something always happens to me at the Open, whether it's a horrendous line call that's two feet in [referring to her loss to Jennifer Capriati in 2004], or whether it's a grunt and I get a point penalized [against Stosur]. Or a foot fault when I actually don't foot fault [against Clijsters]. I'm prepared for something to happen. Hopefully if I get to the semifinals or finals I'm really prepared and really going to count."
Currently ranked No. 4, Serena has a chance of retake the No.1 ranking at the US Open, depending on what No. 1 Victoria Azarenka, No 2 Agnieszka Radwanska and No. 3 Maria Sharapova do.
At times, she has said that it’s not that big of a deal to her, but now the feat seems to be growing in importance. While in great health she could stay near the top of the tour for the next three years or so, she does have a history of injuries so it’s conceivable that if she doesn't get back there this year she may never do so again. No player has performed better than Serena over the past five months, so if she officially becomes queen of her sport again, she’ll really deserve it.
One way she could all but guarantee a return to the top is to win Cincinnati and the US Open. In her current form, that seems like a strong possibility.
"I think it'd be awesome," she said. "I still feel like I'm a force to be reckoned with. I've accomplished with a lot in my career. I want to keep accomplishing more."