Sunday, September 7, 2008

Serena's versatility wins her U.S. Open


Jelena Jankovic
made a match of it, but there was never any doubt in my mind:

Serena Williams would win Sunday night's U.S. Open championship match. Did I anticipate the younger Williams' sister jumping up and down six times after the final point, the most excited I've ever seen her? Nope. But I was sure she'd end up with her ninth grand slam by the night's end, going two up on sister Venus.

Why was I so positive? Well, I'm no tennis expert, but Serena is clearly the best player in women's tennis today. It'd be a crime if she didn't gain the No. 1 ranking after winning the tournament(thankfully she did).

Serena played in 14 sets over two weeks.

Serena won 14 sets over two weeks.

Of course, Venus should have won a set in the sisters' quarterfinal match. Older sis blew 10 set points before Serena clandestinely stole the match in straight sets.

Which brings me to point No. 2: Venus is the second best player in the world, and the margin's as slim as Marissa from "The O.C."

Over the course of 10 seasons — since Serena won the siblings' first grand slam at the 1999 U.S. Open — the sisters have had their ups and downs. But, for the most part, their downs haven't been ability-related.

Injuries and off-the-court distractions have held them back at times. And they've been criticized by many, me included, for not always dedicating their lives to the sport they've dominated the past two majors.

One of the reasons for the skepticism, at least from me, is that I know how good — and dominant — the sisters can be. Venus' on-court prowess deserves a look, but Sunday was Serena's night, so she get the attention — for now.

When someone unfamiliar with Serena sees her on a tennis court, the following thought might creep into their mind: "Wow, with her size, there's no way she can move that well on the court. If I played her, I'd drop-shot her to her demise." They'd be as wrong as Bush was about WMDs.

Almost every time Jankovic hit a short ball, Serena hustled to reach it. And then she finished off the point with a strong backhand here, a backhand volley there. When Jankovic managed to lob the ball back, Serena slammed it toward the stands with an overhand smash. Point over.

She didn't miss a single overhand all night.

That was the difference in the match. Jankovic's ground strokes were strong. She served just as well — if not as fast — as her opponent. Jankovic is faster than Serena, especially laterally. But the 23-year-old Serbian had no net game, no versatility. Even when she hit a strong approach shot that had Serena on the run, she hesitated to approach the net. She simply didn't look comfortable when off the baseline.

And that's why Jankovic has no grand-slam titles, compared to Serena's nine.

Serena doesn't have the best net game on tour. She doesn't hit the best ground strokes on tour. But she's the strongest player, and, most importantly, she's the premier all-around player.

Will it last? That's a question I don't have an answer to. With her 27th birthday approaching on Sept. 26, she's not getting younger. But with, what her mom referred to as, a renewed dedication to the game, Serena can certainly win a few more majors.

Still, consider the whirlwind 2008 season in women's tennis: Maria Sharapova was phenomenal at the Australian Open, leading me to write a column pronouncing her the world's best player. She gained the official ranking in May when Justine Henin unexpectedly retired.

But Sharapova disappeared after that, and ended her season prior to the Olympics and U.S. Open because of a shoulder injury.

Ana Ivanovic won the French Open for her first grand slam, but no one expected the 20-year-old to take over the tour. Sure enough, the No. 1 ranking switched hands a few times throughout the summer before it ended up back in Ivanovic's possession heading into the Open.

But the young Serb suffered early exits at each of the year's final two grand slams.

In July, Venus reclaimed her Wimbledon dominance, winning her fifth title at the All England Club in an epic match verse Serena. It was the opposite of Serena's quarterfinal win in New York, with the younger sister failing to capitalize on several opportunities.

The Williams' sisters followed Venus' accomplishment by pairing up to win the doubles' title at the Olympics. This is important to note, because playing doubles has undoubtedly improved both sisters' net play. Eight years ago, they got by on sheer power. Today, their ability to play well both from the baseline and net is why they're my No. 1 and No. 2 in the world.

For now, Serena is No. 1. But Venus is a close second.

And I'm sure she's fine with that. After all, Venus was in Arthur Ashe Stadium Sunday night, applauding every single Serena overhand — and other winners.

It's been a great two months for the sisters. A return to greatness — again.

Come January and the '09 Australian Open, who knows what player will step and start thew new year with a bang Down Under? That's a long way off.

But if Serena and Venus are healthy and motivated, I'll be flipping a coin to predict my winner.

Because right now, they're on another level.

Sound familiar?

No comments: