Saturday, January 30, 2010

Serena Williams simply the best


If I had any doubt before, it's now completely squashed, nonexistent, gone until I see a change.

Serena Williams, to put it bluntly, is the best women's tennis player in the world — and no one's really that close to her. As people are waking up on the East Coast this morning, they're reading or hearing that Williams won her 12th grand slam much earlier in Melbourne, defeating Justine Henin in three sets 6-4, 3-6, 6-2. And they might sarcastically mutter, "Big deal. She's ranked No. 1 in the world. Henin isn't even ranked!"

True. But if you watched Williams during this Aussie Open, you know that she faced some of the stiffest competition she's had to go through to claim a major. In the quarterfinals, Williams put on an absolutely spectacular and dominant display of tennis to overcome a seemingly insurmountable one-set, 0-4 deficit against seventh seed Victoria Azarenka, who was playing the match of her life. 

It was truly incredible, because Williams looked dead for the first 14 games of the match. She had no life, no energy. Her groundstrokes had the power of an elderly couple's at the local recreation center. I mean, she was getting run off the court by the young 20-year-old from Belarus. 

But then Williams hit a couple strong shots, dropped a few aces and all of a sudden, she was unstoppable. She won eight of the match's final 10 games, including a tiebreaker in the second set. And it wasn't as if Azarenka's play dropped off. She was still pounding the ball, still hitting her spots.

It didn't matter, however. 

In the course of an hour, Williams showed that when she's on her game, she's unbeatable. And she never chokes, never shows chinks in her armor (side note: doesn't it look, sometimes, like she's actually wearing armor the way she's built?)

The day after the Azarenka match, which lasted well over two hours, Williams was back on the court taking on the surprise No. 16 seed Li Na, one of two Chinese women in the semifinals — an unprecedented feat. Li had come back to defeat the other Williams sister, Venus, in the quarterfinals. So she wasn't afraid of Serena, not intimidated by the name. And she, like Azarenka, played the match of her career, pushing the tired Williams all over the court.

But when it mattered most, Williams found that extra gear, didn't show any signs of fatigue, and dominated two tiebreaks 7-4 and 7-1.

(Side note: One of the most impressive things about Williams' most recent feat is that she also won the doubles title with Venus. This meant that on many occasions she played two matches on the same day, and by no means did she and Venus breeze to to the championship; they faced stiff competition along the way. Williams could have told Venus she needed to focus on singles, needed to narrow her outlook to matching the great Billie Jean King with her 12th major. But despite signs of fatigue in the later rounds, she stuck with the doubles and helped win that title a day prior to taking out Henin for the big trophy, the win that will receive much more attention in her bio.)

So get this — over the course of four days, Williams won three singles matches that all spanned three sets AND won two doubles matches. Not bad for a player, 28, who has played professionally for all or parts of 16 seasons and has never been considered one of the most physically fit players on the women's professional tour. 

But she found the energy again in the final, against the seasoned Henin, who won seven majors and was a thorn in Williams' side before retiring in May 2008.  Henin returned to the professional ranks last September and while not ranked, is widely considered, at 27, still one of the best to play the game. Not to mention, one of the toughest.

Henin demonstrated her resolve early Saturday morning, coming back from a set down to grab the momentum with a flurry of pinpoint ground strokes. She steamrolled through the second set and then the first game and two points of the all-or-break third set — heck, she won five straight games and 15 CONSECUTIVE points!

She had all the momentum and looked more energized, less fatigued than Williams. My cousin texted me to say, basically, the match was hers.

Williams, however, had other ideas. First she held serve, buoyed by a couple of her big serves that she always seems to come up with in needy situations. Then she broke Henin, and didn't trail the rest of the match.

How did she do it, how did she summon the energy?

"Honestly, I don't know," Williams said afterward, suggesting that she reminded herself a slew of days off, and a trip to the Super Bowl, were next on her agenda. (Note: Later she said, "I feel like I save all my energy for the final." But really? She seemed to expend a ton of it during those quarterfinal and semifinal victories.)

Whatever the case, Williams showed heart and resolve during that final set, repeatedly pumping her fist after big points as if to remind herself that she'd been there before, that there was a reason she's now 12-3 in grand slam finals. And as she'd done, at different points in the matches, to Azarenka and Li, she finally took a clear advantage over Henin, winning the last four games of the match with an array of strong groundstrokes and un-returnable serves and capitalizing on each unforced error by Henin.

And now, Williams is clearly No. 1 in women's tennis — and could still be for a while longer. Winning both the singles and doubles titles in hot Melbourne proved that. Could she make a run at the 18 majors Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert share? That number seems a long shot, but every time we've doubted Williams, thought she was done, she's proven us wrong. 

So, more than likely, we'll see another handful of majors won by Williams. But for now, all she wants to do is rest — and watch the Super Bowl.

I can't say I blame her. Her last few days had me gasping for air from my recliner.

1 comment: said...

Congratulations to Serena! She is an outstanding player and is having an excellent career. I just hope she never has another outburst during a match like the one she had at the 2009 US Open.