WTA Insider Courtney Nguyen | Serena Williams' transformation from teen phenom to Slam champion to Greatest of All Time is complete with a 23rd major title in the record books.
WTA Staff

MELBOURNE, Australia - Serena Williams broke the Open Era record for Grand Slam titles on Saturday night, beating her older sister Venus Williams 6-4, 6-4 to win her record-setting seventh Australian Open title. Her 23rd major title moved her past Stefanie Graf's record of 22 and puts her just one shy of the all-time record of 24 majors, set by Australia's Margaret Court.

But in a career that has spanned three separate decades, having won her first major in the 90s (1999 US Open), 10 more in the 2000s, and 12 in the aughts, Serena stands alone as the greatest tennis player the game has ever seen.

Saturday night's blockbuster final at Melbourne Park was a celebration of greatness, revolution, and longevity. There was nothing more poetic than for Serena to finally capture No.23 - she fell short in her last attempt at the US Open last fall - with Venus by her side. The Williams sisters took the sport by storm when they turned pro as teenagers in the late 90s. Venus got the ball rolling, but it was Serena who carried it.

"There's no way I would be at 23 without her, there is no way I would be at 1 without her, there's now way I would have anything without her. She's my inspiration. She's the only reason I'm standing here today, the only reason the Williams sisters exist. So thank you, Venus, for inspiring me to be the best player I could be."

As Venus joked in her speech on court, she had a front row seat for Serena's 23 major titles, whether because she was on the court - she is now 7-8 in Slam finals with seven of those losses coming to her sister - or playing the role of cheerleader in the players' box. Together they now hold 30 major singles titles.

"I don't think we're going for the greatest story in sports," Venus said, when asked how she reacts whenever the reference is made. "We're just going for some dreams. In the case that we are, what an honor.

"What an honor."

Melbourne belongs to Serena, who in addition to breaking the Open Era record for major titles, also reclaimed her position atop the rankings, overtaking last year's champion Angelique Kerber at No.1. But 23 was the number of the day. Before taking to the podium to accept her trophy, Serena switched out her match shoes for a pair of Nike Air 23s, an homage to another great sporting champion, Michael Jordan.

"His Airness" wrote her a letter, delivered on the set of ESPN, congratulating on her record-breaking feat.

Aside from sending every record book back to the printer, Slam No.23 puts Serena firmly ahead of the woman to whom her domination is often compared in Stefanie Graf. Both women showed incredible dominance - Graf remains the last palyer to complete the Calendar Slam - and the German still holds the record for weeks at No.1, at 377 (Serena trails at 309 weeks). But this is where Serena's longevity reigns supreme.

"My first Grand Slam started here, and getting to 23 here, but playing Venus, it's stuff that legends are made of," Serena said. "I couldn't have written a better story. I just feel like it was the right moment. Everything kind of happened. It hasn't quite set in yet, but it's really good."

Graf's glorious career ended in 1999 at the age of 30. By contrast, Serena has won 10 major titles after the age of 30. At 35 years old she continues to be the standard against whom all others are measured, and given her performance over the fortnight in Melbourne, that window is not closing anytime soon.

En route to the title, Serena faced down four current or former Top 10 players and did not lose a set, never once even going to a tie-break. In five of her matches she finished with more winners than unforced errors.

This was a relaxed and focused Serena. And a stress-free Serena is a dangerous one.

"I feel like my game is good," Serena said. "I was thinking yesterday on the practice court that gosh, I'm playing better than I have ever. I thought, man, I'm hitting pretty well. It felt really good to know that I'm playing better and I'm here to take this game pretty seriously."

Numbers won't matter much for Serena going forward. But they also don't lie. As she repeatedly insists, she is playing with house money and everything from here on out is a bonus. From the outside, the focus will shift to the prospect of eclipsing Court's record of 24 major titles. It's a nice goal, but whether she beats it or not will have zero impact on her legacy.

"I've been trying to live it (play stress-free) for quite some time now, but definitely I agree that this tournament I was really able to do it even though I was trying to do it and trying and trying. I think having to play those two matches in the first two rounds, I had no choice but to be better.

"I really was OK with, not losing, but I knew that I didn't have to win here to have to make my career. For whatever reason that settled with me this time. I don't know why. I wish I could tell you. I want to know because I definitely want to do that next time," she said with a laugh.

Outside of Billie Jean King, no woman - or women, if you rightfully include Venus - has had more impact on the women's game. They introduced and perfected the power game. They forced the rest of the field to match their intensity and physicality. In elevating their status as pop culture icons they elevated the game, bringing what was traditionally considered a country-club sport to the masses.

And they did it by marching to the beat of their drummer, faltering and flying on their own specific terms.