"The 2011 U.S. Open women's doubles champion." Even a week after hearing the announcer say those words, I can't believe he was referring to me. Somebody please pinch me, because it truly feels like it was a dream!
When I woke up last Sunday morning, my first thought wasn't about our strategy to win my first Grand Slam title in almost six years, and it wasn't dread about breakfast (out of superstition, I'd been eating Greek yogurt with Grape-Nuts and honey for 14 days in a row). That Sunday morning was a much bigger occasion than just the finals of the U.S. Open. As we all know, it was the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11. Like countless other people, I woke up with a very heavy heart, thinking about the tragedy that took place on that beautiful Tuesday morning 10 years earlier. I thought to myself that one way to honor that day was to represent my country the best I could on this anniversary, on the biggest stage in our sport, in the greatest city in the world.
This was my first Grand Slam final in three years. The road to get here had been a bit bumpy, to say the least. It was the combination of hard work, perseverance and a few key life changes that helped get me back on track. My partner, Liezel Huber, and I had worked very hard over the past few months to put ourselves in this position, but reaching the finals of the Grand Slam wasn't the goal -- winning one was! And today we were going to get that chance.
The U.S. Open has always held a special place in my heart. This was my 23rd (yes, you read that right!) straight U.S. Open appearance. I started playing here when I was in juniors and have played every year since. I grew up outside of Philadelphia, so playing in NYC always felt like I was playing at "home" -- and I was lucky to have many of my friends and family come to watch me play. With each win, the ticket requests from friends and family started to multiply. By the finals, I was trying to charm as many tickets as I could out of player services so that I could accommodate everyone. I was humbled to think that all of these individuals, friends and family alike, wanted to come and share this occasion with me. I felt very blessed for countless reasons on that day.
As I walked out of my apartment that morning, I saw my driver, Tony. Tony had driven me every day for the past two weeks. While it was by chance at first, it soon became a habit and part of my daily ritual. I was starting to get superstitious, and feared the day I would walk out the door to find another driver. As luck would have it, on finals day, Tony and his smiling face were there to greet me.
I went through my usual routine at the tennis center: handling the ticket requests, re-gripping my newly strung rackets, organizing my match clothes and then heading out to warm up. The only change in the routine today was that we warmed up on Ashe Stadium to get ready for the final. The flat-screen televisions in the locker room were showing the 9/11 memorial, and each time I passed it, I was reminded that the nerves I was experiencing in my stomach paled in comparison to the emotions being felt in lower Manhattan and all over the world that morning.
Once we warmed up, the hard part began -- the wait for the start of the match. The final hour before taking the court is the toughest part of the day. All you want to do is fast-forward time, get out there and start competing. I was more than ready when we were called. Before I knew it, we were being interviewed by Darren Cahill from ESPN before we took to the court for the final. The time had finally come, and we both felt we were ready.
I sat in my chair and pulled my racket out of my bag. When I glanced over at my box and saw all of the familiar faces, it helped to settle me down and brought a giant smile to my face. "Good Life" by OneRepublic began to play throughout the stadium and, at that moment, I knew the day was going to be extra special. I had so many people coming to the match that I asked my dear friend Billie Jean King if I could use her World Team Tennis suite to accommodate the group. (Thank you, BJK!) I looked up to the suite and saw many more familiar faces, including my three little nieces, friends and family all there to support me. Again, I felt so humbled to have them there.
The first set and change of the match didn't seem to go our way. Vania King and Yaroslava Shvedova were playing well and we were not being aggressive enough. We lost the first set 6-4. Something had to change -- and then we got a very welcome rain delay. We had time to get off the court, gather our thoughts and try to start over. When play resumed, even though we immediately went down a break, Liezel and I were able to fight our way back into the match and managed to take it to a third set.
It was as close as a match can get -- a true nail-biter. Before we knew it, we were in a third-set tiebreak. Aggressive play at the start of the tiebreak got us out to an early 4-0 lead, then 4-2, and then 6-2 ... four championship points. Gulp! We lost the first one and then Liezel took the balls to serve at 6-3. When Shvedova hit a backhand that sailed long, it was over! I dropped my racket and threw out my arms to hug Liezel. "We won, we won, we won!" Liezel said with pure exhilaration in her voice.
We turned to our box and the joy on their faces is something I will never forget. If I could have thrown my arms around the entire stadium that day, I would have. I looked up to the suite to see my friends screaming, my sister crying and everyone jumping up and down with excitement. Words cannot describe how incredible it was to be able to share this moment with all of them. I didn't want to leave the court, I didn't want it to end and yet I couldn't wait to see everyone and start the celebration. We had done it ... we were the 2011 U.S. Open doubles champions.
Someone asked me when I walked off the court if winning one more Slam -- my sixth -- made me feel different. The truth was that it did. The past few years have been tough, with several ups and downs in my career, and I had questioned if I would hold a Grand Slam trophy again. I recommitted myself to my fitness and decided to give it one last push to see if I could do it. I believed in myself and this partnership when many others didn't. To know that, after everything, I was still able to win again on such a big stage was beyond gratifying. To also be able to share that moment with so many friends and family along with my partner Liezel is indescribable. It was a day that will forever be etched not only into my memory but my heart. We are lucky if we have a handful of these moments in our lifetime and to be able to share an experience like that with family and dear friends makes it that much more special. And to do it in NYC, on Sept. 11 ... there is no place in the world I would rather have been.