MASON, OHIO - The image is utterly arresting for its artistic blend of muscle and grace. Serena Williams, clad in a black leotard with a cutout that reveals perfectly sculpted abs, seems to defy gravity while her powerful legs extend in a full split balanced atop two parallel bars set as far apart as railroad tracks. And she makes it look easy.
Williams explains the idea for the portrait accompanying an article about her in the Aug. 10 edition of New York magazine came from photographer Norman Jean Roy, who saw a photo she posted on her Instagram account showing the greatest women's tennis player in the world doing the splits while working on the rings like a gymnast.
"He wanted to take it to a new level,'' Williams said of Roy. "I said, 'Awesome. Cool.' ''
The pose was a feat of strength and flexibility that Williams said left her exhausted. A picture might be worth a thousand words, but Williams boiled it down to three to describe the statement it made: "Strong is beautiful.
"I think that kind of spoke to all of that.''
At 33, when even the best of them begin to drop back to the pack, Serena Williams is suspended far above the women's game, looking stronger than ever mentally as well as physically. She arrives in New York for the U.S. Open that begins Monday at the height of her powers, having won eight of the past 13 Grand Slam events.
Her victory at Wimbledon completed her second career "Serena Slam'' of four straight major wins, and she has a chance to become only the fourth woman to achieve the calendar year Grand Slam and the first since Steffi Graf did it in 1988. A U.S. Open victory also would give Williams 22 major titles, tying her for second all-time with Graf behind Margaret Court's 24.
Williams last held all four majors when she won the French Open, Wimbledon and U.S. Open in 2002, followed by the 2003 Australian Open. She was 21, a budding prodigy. But that was another lifetime.
"This one was really unbelievable for me,'' Williams said during an interview before the Western & Southern Open that she won a week ago. "The feeling is like I didn't really think I could do another 'Serena Slam.'
"I mean, I always thought I could, but when it didn't happen after a number of years, I would have never expected at this time last year to win four Grand Slams in a row. For me, that was really captivating and really awesome and just crazy, really.''
THE RETURN OF SERENA
Three years ago, Williams looked very mortal. She had missed the 2010 U.S. Open and 2011 Australian Open after suffering a foot injury from stepping on a glass. She then developed a pulmonary embolism that led to surgery to remove a blood clot before missing the 2011 French Open. Upon returning to competition, she failed to win the next four majors, ending with her first first-round loss in a Grand Slam at the 2012 French Open.
At that low point, Williams asked Frenchman Patrick Mouratoglou to coach her in place of her father, Richard, who had guided her and older sister Venus since 1995 after a break with junior coach Rick Macci. The impact was immediate. Williams won Wimbledon and the U.S. Open to begin the surge in which she has won eight majors after the age of 30, the most by any woman at that stage of her career in the modern era since World War II.
"She decided to make a change,'' Mouratoglou said. "She was feeling close to the end. She was 30 and had lost in the first round at Roland Garros when she came to me . . . At the time, she had some insecurities because she didn't win a Grand Slam for two years. She had some injuries when she didn't play, but she played for a year and didn't win one.''
It wasn't as though Mouratoglou had to reinvent the wheel with a player who had won 13 Grand Slam titles by the time they met. But in addition to making tactical tweaks, there is no mistaking the improved concentration and consistency under Mouratoglou that has allowed Williams to access her full range of talents. "I feel like he's been a great factor in affecting a big part of my game,'' Williams said. "He's been really amazing, and he's been really positive. I think the record and the numbers speak for themselves since Patrick and I have gotten together. I mean, we've won an incredible amount of Grand Slams, and we've also won a lot of tournaments, too. So we kind of lost count.
"We have dubbed ourselves the 'dynamic duo.' Maybe the 'wonder twins.' ''
The trust is deep-seated and the chemistry is evident not only in Williams' results but in her sense of stability away from the court. "There's a lot of trust,'' Mouratoglou said. "I can feel it. The key is to be open and to be nonjudgmental. You enter into the other one's world and try to understand what they're thinking and how they feel about their sport. You analyze them and find the keys.
"It was important to have her super-motivated every day. We added some shots and some consistency, and we got her interested tactically. She's very smart, and she will find solutions on the bad days.''
SERENA LETS LOOSE
Williams' health scare also rekindled her passion for tennis and sharpened her focus on how she wanted to finish her career. "I think one of those factors is just me being free and really enjoying the game and enjoying every time I'm out there,'' she said. "Not that I didn't before, but I also think those eight [major titles] kind of came after I got really sick. I have a different outlook on life. Even though I'm super-intense on the court every time, I also realize life is very short and tomorrow is not promised. I have fun now.''
It's difficult to argue with the success Williams achieved earlier in her career when her father was an overarching presence. But there was a vague sense that perhaps she wasn't making the most of her immense talent, that her success was based simply on superior strength and athleticism.
Junior coach Macci recalls when the Williams sisters were based at his academy in Boca Raton, Florida, from 1991-95, learning the basics. As Macci said, Richard Williams and his former wife, Oracene, also were learning the skills necessary to take charge of their daughters' careers.
"When they left me, they never really had a coach other than Mom and Dad,'' Macci said of Venus and Serena. "It's a problem in tennis, particularly with girls. The base was built, but when a parent is coaching, he doesn't really have the background.
"The wild card with Venus and Serena is they both like to win, and they were big, strong and fast like tennis had never seen. I knew they were going to transcend the game. But when they left, they didn't build their games around their God-given talents.''
In Macci's view, Venus, who has seven Grand Slam titles, would have been even better if she learned to go to the net more often the way she does on Wimbledon's grass. Serena obviously possesses the most powerful serve in women's tennis, but Macci added, "Serena is the best of all-time because of what's between her ears.''
CAN ANYONE STOP SERENA?
Macci acknowledged Serena appears to have achieved more stability in her personal life since she began working with Mouratoglou, but he also ascribed some of her late-career dominance to the fact that several of her toughest rivals, including Jennifer Capriati, Justine Henin, Lindsay Davenport and Martina Hingis, retired (though Hingis competes in doubles), weakening the overall women's field.
Of course, none of those foes had a winning record against Serena and they only were getting older, but it's true they fared far better than the current top 10. No. 3 Maria Sharapova is 2-18 against Williams and hasn't beaten her in 11 years. No one else in the top 10 has more than one win against Williams. Other than sister Venus (11-15), the most wins among current players against Serena are by No. 21 Jelena Jankovic (4-10) and No. 20 Victoria Azarenka (3-17).
No one has been more frustrated by Williams' dominance than Sharapova. "To be able to keep such a high level and just bring it event after event no matter what match you're playing, it's an incredible power to do that,'' Sharapova said. "We speak about the physicality she has on the court and the presence that she has, but as an athlete or as a normal human being, you have days where you're just off and things are not working. The fact that she's been able to bring it, not just this year but cumulatively throughout her career to put herself in this position is really incredible.''
Never has Williams been as consistent as this season. She ran her record to 45-2 with her recent victory over Simona Halep in the Western & Southern Open.
No. 2 Halep, who is 1-6 against Williams, said she fully expects Williams to complete the calendar year Grand Slam. Halep spoke to the utter superiority of the world No. 1 in unvarnished terms.
"She is very strong, and when you go on court, you are a little bit scared,'' Halep said. "Of course, you have to have the game to beat her, but the most important thing at this level is to believe that you have a chance to win against her. Mentally, there is a problem with the players, I think, because she is the best and she is winning everything.''
No. 6 Lucie Safarova, who is 0-9 against Williams and has four three-set losses, including this year's French Open final, added: "Serena is a big fighter. She's very strong mentally on court . . . Even when she is losing, she can always pull out those surprising great shots.''
Williams' competitors all subscribe to the theory that it's important to attack her first serve and hit aggressive returns that force her to take the extra step. But saying it and doing it are two different things. No. 5 Petra Kvitova, who scored her first win in six tries against Williams on clay this year in Madrid, said it's also important not to get too emotional after gaining a lead against Williams because of her ability to come back.
She was loath to admit it, but Kvitova said that, after talking so much about Williams this season, everyone in the field will have extra motivation to be the one to upset her in New York. "I don't like questions with 'if,' '' Kvitova said of the prospect of facing Williams in Flushing. "But 'if,' then, yes.''
PRESSURE? WHAT PRESSURE?
As she approaches the ultimate test of her career, Williams wobbled ever so slightly at the Rogers Cup in Toronto in early August. She served poorly in suffering her second loss of the year in the final against 18-year-old Swiss upstart Belinda Bencic. But after a slow start in Ohio, Williams steadily improved on the way to winning the Western & Southern Open final.
Earlier in the year, she experienced a painful tendon problem in her serving elbow, but Mouratoglou said Williams received successful physical therapy at the French Open. She skipped the tournament before Toronto but should come into the U.S. Open in good condition.
"It's better now,'' Williams said after winning in Ohio. "Hopefully, I'll just suck it up and get ready.''
When Graf was going for the Grand Slam 27 years ago, she said the pressure in New York was almost unbearable, but Mouratoglou has tried to ease Williams' mind. "She shouldn't put any pressure on herself,'' Mouratoglou said. "She has achieved so much already. I have worked with a few players who had one shot to win a Grand Slam tournament and they knew it might be the only shot they would ever get. For Serena, it's different. It's not her last Grand Slam.''
That's the line Williams has adopted as she anticipates the challenge to add to her historic legacy. "I think it's really cool,'' she said. "There's definitely a lot of pressure on there, but I think at the end of the day, I'm a little bit older in my career and I have two Serena Slams. What more can you want?
"I would like to win the Open probably more than anyone else. Whether I do or not, I'm going to try to win this year or next year and just keep going for that. So it's not the end of the world.''
Even if she fails to complete the calendar year Grand Slam, Williams now seems destined to rule women's tennis long enough to surpass Graf and Court and set the record for all-time Grand Slam titles.
"Someone who can run and serve like that can play until she's 40,'' Macci said. "She's motivated because she knows she can win and be the best. She will end up with 26 or 27 Grand Slams. Serena will go down as the best of all-time.''