Williams ready to serve up fifth Wimbledon title
It is often noted that the mark of a great champion is the ability to adapt and modify as existing parts of their games begin to creak and let them down.
When the old legs began to go, Ryan Giggs went from flying winger to linking frontman to controlling midfielder. When Steve Waugh finally realised dashing only gets you so far - usually out - he scaled down his batsmanship and evolved into a limpet.
When Muhammad Ali returned from enforced exile, he parked his bike and gambled it on heart. And so it is with Serena Williams, although the fine-tuning has been less technical, more of the mind.
Telling a woman that she plays tennis like a man might not sound like the height of chivalry, but it is the greatest compliment you could pay Williams at this year's Wimbledon Championships: a record-breaking 24 aces in her semi-final victory over Victoria Azarenka made it 85 for the tournament, meaning only Philipp Kohlschreiber (98) has delivered more.
Williams is such a potent on-court presence it is easy to forget she has been creaking for an awful long time now. As far back as 2004, a knee injury forced Williams out of the sport for eight months. The following year she finished out of the top 10 for the first time since 1998, the year before she won the US Open for her first Grand Slam singles title.
Hawkish observers suggested her heart - and mind - were elsewhere: designing outfits, on the catwalk, writing self-help manuals with sister Venus, anywhere but the court.
In January this year, Williams claimed that not only had the cynics been right all along, but that her heart, if not her mind, had never been in tennis in the first place. "It's not that I've fallen out of love [with tennis]," said the four-time Wimbledon champion, who plays Agnieszka Radwanska in the final on Saturday. "I've actually never liked sports."
Williams's announcement didn't exactly go down a bomb with those who had never really taken to a woman who always dared to be different, from playing at the US Open in a lycra catsuit to letting line judges and umpires know exactly what she was thinking. She was accused of complacency and ingratitude, of being scornful of her privilege.
But her performances at this year's Wimbledon suggest she was being economical with the truth, wilfully or not: that much aggression and that much focus is generated by an awful lot of work and an awful lot of pride, which in turn is generated by an awful lot of love.
"Serena is fitter than she has been in the past and she's playing with a much better attitude," says BBC pundit and 1977 champion Virginia Wade. "In the past she thought she could beat everybody without working too hard. Now she realises she has to make an effort all the time. She's an outgoing girl and likes to do other things but at this stage in her career I think she's really anxious to get the most out of herself."
The latest coming of Williams, the first 30-year-old to reach the women's final since Steffi Graf in 1999, is made all the more remarkable by the fact she spent almost a year on the sidelines in 2010-2011 after stepping on some glass outside a Munich restaurant.
The glass sliced a tendon before a clot travelled up her leg, forming a pulmonary embolism, a blockage in the main artery of the lung. If it sounds serious, that's because it was. "It could have been career-ending, but for the grace of God," said Williams. "I've missed tennis so much. If tennis has missed me half as much as I have missed tennis, we're in a good place."
Serena Williams celebrates reaching the 2012 Wimbledon final. Photo: Getty.
Tennis did miss Williams, a 13-time Grand Slam singles champion whose last victory at a major was at SW19 in 2010. In her absence, Denmark's Caroline Wozniacki rose to the top of the rankings and remained there for all but one week between October 2010 and January 2012. It's not that Wozniacki was a bad player, it's just there was always a sense she was keeping the throne warm while the rightful queen was stricken.
"I'm so happy to be playing," said Williams after her straight sets defeat of Azarenka. "I'm so happy to be on the court. I feel like this is where I belong. Maybe I don't belong in a relationship. But I know for a fact I do belong on this tennis court."
Good news for tennis, bad news for Radwanska. If Williams's serve is on song - and it hasn't looked like malfunctioning thus far - it will be a case of the tank against the epee and a fifth singles title will be hers, 10 years after her first. Centre Court will be where she belongs and Centre Court will belong to her.