During Saturday’s medals ceremony for the women’s Olympic tennis tournament, as the U.S. national anthem played at Wimbledon, the wind ripped the American flag right off its pole. Holy metaphor? The crowd gasped at the flag fell towards the crowd; Serena Williams, the gold medalist, spent the rest of the anthem staring at an empty space (the flags of Russia, for silver medalist Maria Sharapova, and Belarus, for Victoria Azarenka, who won bronze, resisted the gusts, and stayed in place).
The flag gaffe didn’t offend Williams. “Oh, God, no,” says Williams, when asked if she was insulted, noting the wind. “It was probably trying to come hug me, the flag was so happy … It was fluttering towards me, trying to wrap its fabric around me.”
Her audience laughs. Sure, the flag wasn’t rushing towards Serena. But it should have been. She was just that good in the final, destroying Sharapova 6-0, 6-1, in a match that took all of 62 minutes. (Williams pretty much owns Sharapova, who had lost her previous seven matches to Williams, dating back to 2004). With the win, Williams joins Steffi Graff as the only women to earn the “golden slam” – singles titles in all four majors, plus the Olympics.
Her feat is even more remarkable because she returned to tennis a little over a year ago, after sitting out with a foot injury and suffering a pulmonary embolism that required emergency surgery. She won Wimbledon a few weeks ago, and now has Olympic gold. “I was fortunate enough to survive, literally, what I went through,” says Williams. “And it made me a better person, and possibly, a better player. Who knows if I would have had this desire to do well.”
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The final started out auspiciously for Williams. Right before the match was supposed to begin, she left the court. The crowd, suspecting some gamesmanship, booed her, but Williams insists she needed a trip to the loo. “Before my matches, I’m drinking so much water,” says Williams. “Like, every two minutes, I’m going to the bathroom.”
Williams was worried that the wind would throw off her game. “It was tough,” Williams says. “I played Venus in the [Wimbledon] final in 2008, in the wind, and I didn’t deal well. And ever since then, I was like, ‘I’m never going to complain about the wind again.’ So maybe that experience kind of helped me.” Williams blasted seven aces in the first set.
Down 3-0 in the second, Sharapova finally held serve. “I saw her win that one game, and pump her fist,” says Williams. “Like, ‘oh boy, here she comes.’” In the next game, however, Sharapova couldn’t capitalize on two break points. At one point Sharapova stretched towards Parliament to return one of Williams’ rocket serves. It was a spectacular save. But before Sharapova could position herself after lunging, Williams fired the return back to the baseline, past Sharapova for the point. Sharapova challenged, but the scoreboard confirmed what everyone already knew. The ball clipped the line. The shot was perfect. Today, Serena was too good.
After she aced Sharapova on match point, Williams bounced around the grass, giddy. She started to shimmy. “I don’t think I’ve ever danced like that,” says Williams. “I didn’t plan it. It just happened.” Williams has downplayed the importance of an Olympic singles title: after all, she had already won doubles gold with her sister, in 2000 and 2008. That was a ruse. “Deep, deep, deep, deep down, I wanted it in singles as well,” Williams says. “And I got it. It’s an amazing feeling, I can’t compare. I have it. I have them all.”