Two years ago, on centre court at Rexall Centre, Serena Williams thrust her arms up to celebrate a signature win on her challenging comeback journey from a hospital bed to the top of women's tennis.
Williams skipped and twirled about the court and gleefully accepted the racquet-shaped crystal trophy as Rogers Cup champion. She had won the tournament 10 years earlier as a young star. Yet, in 2011, she was unseeded but rallying on a thunderous return after a 49-week absence from tennis due to a foot injury and serious blood clots in her lungs.
Since she last competed in Toronto, she has skyrocketed up the rankings to No. 1, won 10 WTA titles, three Grand Slam events, Olympic gold and the WTA Championship. Williams had only been eight weeks into her comeback and was ranked 80th in the world when she won the 2011 Rogers Cup, bowling over top-ranked opponents Victoria Azarenka and Samantha Stosur on her way to victory.
Looking back, she says, the win in Toronto helped ignite her recent success.
"[Toronto] has always been a big tournament on the WTA Tour, and such a staple, it was really good for my confidence and it definitely gave me a lot of experience for the next month to come, to try to be a more consistent player," Williams said during a Monday teleconference as she prepared for next week's Rogers Cup, where she will be the top seed.
"That win propelled me to get to the finals of the U.S. Open and I had really good hard-court results. Being able to capitalize in Toronto at that time was really exciting and good for me."
The current world No. 1 has a 51-3 record in 2013. She has exceeded the 50-win mark four times in her career, but never as quickly as this year.
Williams has 53 career WTA singles titles and 22 doubles titles, and has made $46.6-million (U.S.) in on-court earnings, $4.8-million alone in 2013. She is two Grand Slam titles short of the 18 held by Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert, and six shy of record holder Steffi Graf.
The 31-year-old American, who had at times been accused of being periodically bored with the game, seems to have found new inspiration from Frenchman Patrick Mouratoglou – the 43-year-old coach she enlisted a year ago, one who mentored Laura Robson, Grigor Dimitrov and Marcos Baghdatis.
Paparazzi have snapped photos of Williams and Mouratoglou that suggest they are also a couple. The two have neither confirmed nor denied being romantically involved.
The romance was the topic of a recent war of words between Williams and world No. 2 Maria Sharapova.
First, Williams suggested her rival was "boring" and accused Sharapova's boyfriend, Dimitrov (whom Williams allegedly once dated), of having a "black heart." Sharapova fired back by alleging Williams has been dating a married man who is getting a divorce.
There won't be a matchup between Williams and Sharapova in Toronto, since the Russian has withdrawn due to a nagging hip injury suffered at Wimbledon.
It's a shame, as the popularity of the two women is high, according to the Celebrity DBI by Repucom, a global index that measures perceptions of celebrities. Its July survey found 91 per cent of U.S. consumers surveyed said they know who Williams is, 84 per cent like her, and 75 per cent called her a good endorser. In comparison, 63 per cent knew of Sharapova, 80 per cent liked her and 79 per cent called her a good endorser.
Sharapova and world No. 3 Azarenka are Williams's closest competitors, yet they have a combined 4-26 record against her. Even so, Williams questions whether she's playing her best tennis, lamenting her recent early exits at Wimbledon and the Australian Open.
"I would have liked to have done better in a few of the tournaments this year," she said. "So I'm not sure if I've peaked yet, but I want to keep trying to get to the top of the mountain, and if I am there, then I want to stay there."
Editor's note: The original version of this story incorrectly stated that German tennis player Steffi Graf won 20 Grand Slam singles titles. Graf actually won 22 Grand Slams, therefore American Serena Williams is currently six wins away from Graf, the record-holder, not four as reported in the story. This online version has been corrected.