MELBOURNE, Australia -- This was big for Serena Williams. For rebuilding her image. For re-establishing her credibility. For reconfirming her legacy.
For reminding us about her greatness. What could have gone down as a second-straight embarrassment for Williams, instead served to say this:
Serena Williams is back.
She beat her rival, Justine Henin, 6-4, 3-6, 6-2 to win the Australian Open Saturday. It was her 12th major title, tying Billie Jean King for sixth most all-time.
"We both were out there trying to kind of prove something,'' Williams said. "I think we both did.''
Gracious to the end. This is the Williams we've seen the past two weeks.
You should have seen her celebrate. She flung her racket to the court, dropped to the ground flat on her back. Then she shook hands and reached up to her box, where she hugged her sister, Venus.
Did she think about climbing into the box?
"You know, I did,'' she said. "If you saw me, I did a pull-up, but my muscles freezed because there's no chance I could lift my weight in a pull-up. I was like, 'OK, that's a hopeless cause.'
"I was thinking about going inside, taking the elevator.''
This was the best possible way for Williams to wipe away what happened at the U.S. Open. It doesn't take away the lowest moment of her career, but it puts it in the backseat.
"Move on,'' she said. "I've totally moved on. One moment doesn't make one person's career. It's all about the moments you put together.''
You can add up her moments any way you want, good and bad. To me, the good outweighs the bad, especially when you consider where she started:
"I came from nothing,'' she said.
She lied. Of course she thought it about. It altered her attitude, her manners and even her work ethic. The cynic might say she came for revenge. I'll go with renewal.
All eyes were on her even more than usual, and she behaved beautifully the whole time, congratulating opponents, acting graciously.
The key word there might be "acting,'' but really, who cares why she did the right thing?
Williams talked about King. She said tying her major titles mark was a career goal, and now she wants to match King's accomplishments off-court. She talked about starting charities, and building a school in Kenya, which will open in March.
She said she'll teach a class there.
I asked: Which class?
"I don't know what I'm going to teach,'' she said. "I might teach math, cause I'm good at that. Or maybe something English.''
You can see how she was framing this, re-framing herself.
Williams was embarrassed about that U.S. Open because she had spent a year telling everyone that she was the best in the world, and then she lost to Kim Clijsters, who was in better shape than Williams after returning from a 2 1/2 year maternity leave.
So another loss on the international stage to another returning player would have been too much to take.
Instead, she can look forward again.
In winning, Williams, who also won the doubles title with her sister, Venus, showed that she really is the best. Clijsters lost early, and no one else is close.
Except Henin, who was a curiosity. This was just her second tournament back, her first major. She returns with a new attitude, a freshness.
She needed to get away from the game, to breathe new air, as she put it.
She did that for two years, found balance, and then suddenly found the itch to come back. The new her felt it was safe.
The trick will be to not let the pressures and the beatings on her little body build up and make her go, as she said, crazy again. To that end, she and her coaches have gone on walks, eaten meals together, tried to build cohesion.
How wound up was she before? Henin said it was evidence of the new her that she was now willing to eat at different restaurants. This time last year, she was in the CONGO on a function for UNICEF, and with that in mind, she was satisfied with reaching the final.
"This feeling of disappointment cannot take advantage of all the things I've done in the last few weeks,'' she said. "It's mixed feeling at this moment. But she's a real champion.''
Williams talked about trying to win a French Open now, the next major.
It's the only one she has won only once, and it's Henin's best, on the slow red clay.
The key to that is going to be fitness. She arrived at the Australian Open in better shape than she has in the past, partly in response to what happened at the U.S. Open. The idea was to prove herself again.
But she still isn't fully in shape. And while Williams beat her fiercest rival, Henin also showed that she is ready to be at the game's top level, and is only going to get better.
Williams was too big, too strong, too resilient for Henin.
Henin's serve was a mess the whole two weeks. Each match, she improved.
But in the first set, she lollypopped it in, especially her second serve, and Williams crushed it back. Meanwhile, Williams was serving well, some hard, some with sharp angles. That was the difference in the first set.
In the second set, Henin raised the level of her game, going for bigger serves, and getting aggressive on the baseline. Meanwhile, Williams couldn't seem to move her feet. Henin won the final 10 points of the set.
At that point, Williams told herself to "Man up,'' which is a curious thing to say for someone who has made an example of herself to young girls as a strong woman.
I guess Woman Up doesn't sound right?
Whatever, once in the third set, Williams' serve and her trademark fight allowed her to take over again.
So Henin is reborn. The rivalry is reborn.
But more importantly, Williams is, too.
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