MELBOURNE, Australia — Serena Williams was unaware that a victory Saturday would put her back at No. 1. Her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, did all he could to keep her in the dark.
But there was no hiding the other statistical stakes as Williams walked into Rod Laver Arena, headphones around her neck and game face in place, to play her older sister Venus in the Australian Open final.
Even if Serena refused to entertain questions during the tournament about the possibility of winning her 23rd Grand Slam singles title and breaking her tie for the Open era record (from 1968) with Steffi Graf, there was no dodging that number in her head. Now, after her 6-4, 6-4 victory over her sister, she can celebrate No. 23 instead of fret over it.
"I've been chasing it for a really long time," Serena said. "When it got on my radar, I knew I had an opportunity to get there, and I'm here. It's a great feeling. No better place to do it than Melbourne."
She and her sister made their first visit to Melbourne in 1998. They were teenagers with braces on their teeth and braids in their hair, and a clear sense that they were special but no idea of just how far their talents and confidence would carry them. And though their father, Richard, in one of the great sports predictions, saw the future clearly when he said the younger, fiercer Serena would turn out to be the better player, perhaps not even he realized how wide the gap would grow.
Serena, 35, has 23 major singles titles to her sister's seven and has won seven of their nine Grand Slam finals and eight of their past nine matches. Those figures brook no argument.
Asked if it felt awkward to be on the receiving end of so many losses to her sister, Venus, 36, didn't flinch. "No, because I guess I've been here before," she said. "I really enjoy seeing the name Williams on the trophy. This is a beautiful thing."
Serena is one win from Australian Margaret Court's record of 24 majors.
"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.
"There's no way I would be at 23 without her; there's no way I would be at 1 without her. There's no way I would have anything without her. She's my inspiration. She's the only reason I'm standing here today, and the only reason that the Williams sisters exist."
Serena is also back on top after playing little in 2016 except for the majors and losing the No. 1 ranking to Angelique Kerber, who beat her in last year's Australian Open final. She looked shocked when it was announced she would return to No. 1.
Mouratoglou later said he had not answered truthfully when she had inquired about it. He said he wanted to avoid the added pressure. "Actually, I think she's happy I did it now," he said.
Earlier today, Rafael Nadal faced Roger Federer in the men's final. Go to tampabay.com/sports for the result.