All week, Serena Williams played down the prospect of returning to No. 1, but when it happened, she couldn’t stop the tears from flowing.
The 15-time Grand Slam winner replaced top ranked Victoria Azarenka Friday after coming from a set down to beat former Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova 3-6, 6-3, 7-5 in the quarterfinals of the Qatar Open.
It ended of an emotional two-and-half year journey for Williams marked by a string of injuries and doubts about whether she could dominate the women’s game again. After clinching victory with an ace, Williams held up one finger and wiped away the tears flowing down her cheeks as she addressed the cheering crowd.
“There were often times that I never thought I’d play again. Then I thought I’d never be able to win tournaments or Grand Slams,” Williams said. “No. 1 was so far off. It was always a dream, but I was No. 1 when tragedy struck, and it was just an awful thing to happen. So I’m happy that I’m back.”
At 31, Williams becomes the oldest player to attain the top spot. Chris Evert held the No. 1 ranking in 1985 just shy of her 31st birthday.
No. 1 was not a priority two years ago for Williams. Just returning the court was a challenge.
Shortly after winning Wimbledon in 2010, she cut her feet on broken glass while on her way out of a restaurant in Germany. That led to two operations on her right foot. Later, she got clots in her lungs and needed to inject herself with a blood thinner. Those shots led to a pool of blood gathering under her stomach’s skin, requiring another hospital procedure.
Williams lost the top spot to Caroline Wozniacki in 2010 and tumbled down the rankings. But she made a comeback worthy of a No. 1 in 2012, winning Wimbledon, the Olympic gold medal, the U.S. Open and the season-ending WTA championships. She lost only one match in 2012 after her first-round exit at the French Open.
Among those to pay tribute to Williams becoming No. 1 was Maria Sharapova, the American’s next opponent, who said it proved the staying power of the game’s older players.
“It just shows you how the generations have shifted a bit,” Sharapova said. “Now you see Li Na and Serena doing so well ... shows you how if you stay healthy and you’re able to keep working hard, the things that you’re able to achieve in tennis at that age.”
Down 4-1 in the decider, Williams broke Kvitova when she double faulted to make it 4-3. Though it seemed a tiebreaker tournament, Williams broke with a wicked crosscourt backhand to make 6-5 and won it with one of her 14 aces.
Azarenka, meanwhile, stayed on course to retain her Qatar Open title after dispatching Sara Errani 6-2, 6-2 to also reach the semis. She was joined by Sharapova, who advanced by beating 2011 U.S. Open champion Sam Stosur 6-2, 6-4.
Azarenka won all 14 net points in the match to make it 12 straight victories in 2013, including winning a second consecutive Australian Open title.
The third-ranked Sharapova, looking for her third title in Qatar, broke Stosur twice to lead 4-1 in the first set. She took a 3-0 lead in the second before Stosur staged a brief comeback, but she missed a chance to level at 4-4. The Russian closed it out when her backhand clipped the net and dropped over.