During the 2012 U.S. Open final, Serena Williams was so close to losing that the idea of a comeback seemed out of the question.
Her opponent, Victoria Azarenka, had gone up 5-3 in the final set, giving her numerous ways to put Williams away.
“I was preparing my runners-up speech,” Williams said.
Instead, she delivered what became a signature comeback of her career, breaking Azarenka’s serve twice and winning the championship without losing another game.
The significance of that victory went beyond the title itself, as it turned around a year in which she had lost in the first round of the French Open. And as Williams comes close to retiring, that win illustrates how many fans will remember her tennis career — Williams coming back time and again under difficult circumstances.
Here are some of the moments that helped Williams build that reputation.
Australian Open, 2007
After struggling with a knee injury for much of 2006, Williams went into the 2007 Australian Open unseeded and ranked No. 81. But she went on to win the tournament, defeating Maria Sharapova.
“She goes months without playing a match, loses in a tuneup and then runs the table,” Jon Wertheim, a Tennis Channel commentator and author, said.
Pam Shriver, an ESPN tennis analyst, said that Williams entered the Australian Open that year in poor shape, but that by the end of the tournament, “she almost looked like a different player.”
“That was one of the most memorable comebacks that I can remember that resulted in a major championship,” Shriver said.
After the match, Sharapova said to the crowd in Rod Laver Arena that “you can never underestimate her as an opponent.”
“I don’t think many of you expected her to be in the final, but I definitely did,” Sharapova said.
2011 Health Scare
In February 2011, Williams was hospitalized with a pulmonary embolism. Williams recovered in time to play Wimbledon, and later revealed the seriousness of her health scare.
“I was literally on my deathbed at one point,” Williams said at the time. The circumstances, she said, changed her perspective, and she went into Wimbledon that year with “nothing to lose.”
Williams made it to the round of 16. Then, she won her next two tournaments, the Bank of the West Classic in California and the Rogers Cup in Canada. She finished her year by reaching the U.S. Open final, where she lost to Samantha Stosur.
“That comeback was unbelievable,” Shriver said. “No matter the score, no matter whatever, she still thought she could win.”
2012 Summer Run
Williams was eliminated from the 2012 Australian Open in the round of 16, and she was upset at that year’s French Open, where she was knocked out in the first round.
“When she lost in the French Open in the first round, the career buzzards came circling,” Wertheim said. “There were plenty of times her career was supposed to be over, and she came back. The obvious one is 2012.”
Williams responded to the losses by training under a new coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, who went on to work with her for the next decade.
And after that French Open, Williams went on a streak. She won Wimbledon before taking the gold medals in women’s singles and doubles at the London Olympics, and then she delivered her win against Azarenka at the U.S. Open, “playing some of the most inspiring tennis of her career,” Wertheim said.
French Open, 2015
At the French Open in 2015, Williams lost the first set of three consecutive matches. Each time, she came back to win in three sets.
“Opponents were points away from eliminating her, and Serena simply refused to go off the court anything other than the winner,” Wertheim said.
Williams went on to win the semifinal while dealing with a bout of the flu.
The day after the semifinal, still sick, Williams said she briefly thought about withdrawing from the final.
“Out of 10 — a 10 being like take me to the hospital — I went from like a 6 to a 12 in a matter of two hours,” she said at the time. “I was just miserable. I was literally in my bed shaking, and I was just shaking, and I just started thinking positive.”
Williams won the final for her 20th major singles title.
In 2017, Williams surprised the tennis world when she shared that she had won that year’s Australian Open while she was close to two months pregnant.
Williams missed the rest of the 2017 tennis season, and had another major health scare after she gave birth to her daughter, Alexis Olympia Ohanian. Williams was bedridden for her six weeks after she had blood clots in her lungs. Severe coughing caused her cesarean section wound to open. And doctors found a large hematoma, a collection of blood outside the blood vessels, in her abdomen.
She returned to tennis in 2018, when she reached the Wimbledon final (where she lost to Angelique Kerber) and the U.S. Open final (where she lost to Naomi Osaka). The following year, she reached the Wimbledon final (losing to Simona Halep) and the U.S. Open final again (losing to Bianca Andreescu).
“To have a child in the north half of your 30s and reach four major finals is an extraordinary feat that hasn’t gotten the full due,” Wertheim said.
The Farewell Comeback
Williams was forced to withdraw early in her first-round Wimbledon match last year because of an injury. She was given a standing ovation as she walked off the court in tears, as many began to wonder whether it would be the last time Williams would appear at the All England Club.
She returned to Centre Court at Wimbledon this year but was defeated in the first round. She continued to struggle after that, losing early in the tournaments she has entered. At the National Bank Open in Toronto, Coco Gauff said that she was moved by how Williams has continued playing and “giving it her all.”
“There’s nothing else she needs to give us in the game,” Gauff told reporters. “I just love that.”
Williams will attempt one more comeback at this year’s U.S. Open. Along with her singles draw, she will also play in the women’s doubles tournament, partnered with her sister Venus. While we wait to see how this comeback takes shape, one certainty, Shriver said, is that Williams will be playing with the support of her fans.
“The crowd is going to be crazy,” Shriver said. “I think the noise on a Serena win will be some of the loudest noise we’ve ever heard at the U.S. Open.”