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Steve Flink: Serena Rules Once More at The Shrine

7/7/2012 7:00:00 PM

WIMBLEDON—When Serena Williams was victorious here two years ago on the lawns of the All England Club, she seemed to be moving inexorably toward the most productive period of her illustrious career. Serena had taken the Australian Open at the start of that season, and her priorities appeared at last to be where they belonged as she prevailed so convincingly on the grass at the world’s preeminent tournament. With that triumph, Williams surpassed none other than Billie Jean King on the all-time list of women’s major title victors, capturing her 13th Grand Slam event.

That victory placed Serena at No. 6 behind Margaret Smith Court (24), Steffi Graf (22), Helen Wills Moody (19), Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova (18 each). My feeling then was that Williams might well close to within striking distance of Evert and Navratilova, and thus raise her stock and status considerably as one of the best ever in women’s tennis. But, of course, Williams was beset by the cruel accidents of fate that alter the course of lives, spoil even the noblest of aspirations, and remind all athletes that nothing matters more than the preservation of good health. In 2010, Williams suffered a freak foot injury about a week after Wimbledon, cutting herself in a fall outside a restaurant in Germany. She had surgery for that on July 15, 2010, and needed another surgery for the same injury in October of that year. In February of 2011, she battled a pulmonary embolism. She also suffered from a stomach hematoma, and blood clots. She was hospitalized for a while. It was a frightening stretch.

And yet, Serena did not despair. She returned to tournament competition in June of 2011 at Eastbourne, lasted a few rounds at Wimbledon, and soon rediscovered the art of playing tennis for a living as only she can. Williams won two tournaments across the summer of 2011, stormed into the final of the U.S. Open, but then was astoundingly beaten by Sam Stosur in straight sets. Williams took the rest of the year off, lost in the fourth round of the Australian Open to Ekaterina Makarova, but performed with brio and panache on the clay en route to Roland Garros, winning Charleston and Madrid. But, for the first time in 47 career Grand Slam tournament appearances, Williams failed to make it out of the first round in Paris, bowing against Virginie Razzano after taking the first set and leading 5-1 in the second set tie-break.

And so Serena came into this Wimbledon carrying a lot of heavy emotional baggage, determined to reclaim the game’s biggest championship on the hallowed grass courts, anxious to demonstrate her prowess again when it matters the most. Fittingly, she came through to claim the crown for the fifth time. It was her 14th victory in 18 major finals. Curiously, those numbers are linked to two players who have influenced Serena considerably over the years: her older sister, Venus, and compatriot Pete Sampras, who inspired her when she was young, particularly with his outstanding and meticulous serve. Venus won the Wimbledon singles crown five times as well, and Sampras had an identical 14-4 record in major finals. Go figure.

In today’s final, Serena halted No. 3 seed Agnieszka Radwanska 6-1, 5-7, 6-2 in an intriguing final of fluctuating fortunes. At the outset, Serena was unassailable, overpowering and overwhelming her apprehensive adversary with the brute force and extraordinary placement of her serve and the depth and pace of her returns. Radwanska had been nowhere near a Grand Slam tournament before, never advancing beyond the quarterfinals despite her hard earned status as the third best player in the world. She is masterful on defense, capable of fending off even the most explosive of shots from her opponents, a cagey and resourceful match player with good instincts and an agile mind.

But Williams was setting the tempo in this match from the beginning. She took her returns early, sent them back fast, and rushed Radwanska out of nearly every backcourt exchange. There was no way for Radwanska to establish a rhythm. In turn, Serena’s serve was unanswerable as she found the corners with uncanny regularity, confounding Radwanska with the deceptive location of her delivery, mixing it up skillfully in both the deuce and ad courts. The 30-year-old American was timing the ball beautifully and casting aside her rival with ruthless ease and precision.

Williams held at 15 in the opening game of the match, serving an ace down the T at 116 MPH to hold for 1-0. She then went right to work, breaking down Radwanska’s defenses. The second game of the contest was critical. It went to deuce five times. Radwanska had three game points. But Serena would not let go. On her third break point, she sent a backhand down the line with sufficient pace, and Radwanska tried in vain to go behind her. Radwanska’s forehand down the line landed wide. Williams was off and running at 2-0. She was pushed to deuce in the third game after leading 40-15, but she converted on her third game point for 3-0, catching Radwanska thoroughly off guard with a forehand drop shot winner down the line.

Radwanska had not played badly, but Williams was decidedly superior on the big points. The pattern continued. At 0-3, Radwanska reached 40-30, but she was intimidated by Serena’s barrage of big returns. Radwanska double faulted, sliced a backhand long on the next point, and was broken again as Williams released a sparkling backhand return winner down the line. It was 4-0 for the American. Serena swiftly advanced to 5-0, holding at 15 with an ace wide in the deuce court. But a plucky Radwanska got on the scoreboard at last. In the sixth game, Radwanska trailed 0-30 after double faulting, then drifted to 15-40. She was double set point down, but eventually she held on after three deuces with an ace. Serena promptly closed out the set in 36 efficient minutes, holding at 30 with an ace out wide and a service winner back to back.

Rain forced a delay. The first set had concluded at 2: 47, and play resumed at 3:11. Initially, the time off court did not seem to make much difference. Radwanska held at 15 for 1-0, but Williams unleashed two more aces on her way to an easy hold for 1-1. She then broke the best woman player ever to emerge from Poland in the third game, sweeping four points in a row, cracking a pair of backhand winners and keeping her returns unfailingly deep throughout that game. Serena could sense a big chance to break the contest open. She served two aces in the following game, and held for 3-1 with a confidently produced backhand volley winner.

Radwanska, though, could detect some nerves from Serena in the next game. The No. 3 seed held at 15 as the American lost her range on the return of serve. Williams now was clearly growing more apprehensive with every game. At 3-2, she was down 0-30 but bailed herself out by taking four points in a row, holding at 30 with an ace down the T.

At a set and 4-2, Williams was closing in swiftly on the title. She had not yet lost her serve or even faced a break point. But her anxiety and Radwanska’s much improved play soon changed the complexion of the match. Radwanska’s court positioning became much more aggressive. She took Serena’s deep and penetrating returns and stood in close to the baseline, taking the ball early, bending her knees in a pronounced manner, seizing the initiative. Radwanska held at 15 for 3-4. Serena had two game points for 5-3 but could not exploit them. Radwanska outdueled Serena in a hotly contested 22 stroke exchange on the second of those opportunities. She broke for 4-4 when Serena sent a forehand approach over the baseline.

Radwanska held on from 0-30 in the ninth game as Williams missed some significant openings. Serena briefly settled her nerves and held at 15 for 5-5, but Radwanska was a different player with a much more positive outlook, a competitor who now believed she might be able to win. Radwanska held at love for 6-5, connecting with four straight first serves, benefitting from a pair of unprovoked mistakes by Williams. In the twelfth game, Williams double faulted for 0-30, made a backhand unforced error to go down 15-40, and then missed another two-hander on the following point. Improbably, Radwanska had salvaged the set, and the Centre Court audience was exhilarated by her comeback.

At the start of the third set, Serena remained shaken, ineffectual and uncertain. At 40-30 in the first game, Radwanska double faulted. Williams would earn a break point chance but her play was passive and the American sent a forehand lob long. After three deuces, Radwanska held on for 1-0. Williams did not serve well in the next game as she missed four out of five first deliveries, but she held on for 1-1 with an ace, a bounce smash winner and a scorching forehand crosscourt that was too hot for Radwanska to handle. In the third game, Radwanska double faulted to make it 15-40, but boldly held on for 2-1 on a run of four points.

It was here that Williams shifted into another gear, sweeping five games in a row for the crown. At 1-2, she aced Radwanska four consecutive times in a love hold, going down the T at 114 MPH, down the T again at 107 MPH, down the T at 115 MPH, and finally sending a 111 MPH laser out wide. With four fluid swings of the racket, Williams reached 2-2. Her self-belief restored, Williams moved beyond herself to a new level. She broke at 30 for 3-2, closing out that game with an inside-out forehand winner and an aggressive backhand return that Radwanska could not handle. Serena held at 15 for 4-2, serving another ace in that game.

Radwanska made one last quietly defiant stand in the seventh game, rallying from 0-40 to deuce. Williams quickly earned a fourth break point, and this was the moment she sealed the verdict. With great disguise, she caught her opponent off guard with a forehand sidespin drop shot winner. Serena had travelled safely to 5-2, and served for the match in the eighth game. At 15-15, Williams served her 17th and final ace, followed by a service winner for 40-15, followed by a gorgeous backhand winner down the line. Williams had closed out the victory 6-1, 5-7, 6-2, taking five games in a row, winning 21 of the last 28 points with a flourish.

Serena had won it the hard way. She seemed sure to win in straight sets, lost her way for a while, but then reignited her game dynamically down the stretch to pull away convincingly in the end. It was one of the most important tournament victories of her career. Williams will turn 31 at the end of September. She needs to throw everything she has into the next two to three years to move up higher on the historical ladder of the sport. In my new book, “The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time”, I rank Serena No. 6 behind Graf, Navratilova, Evert, Wills Moody, and Court. I believe that to move up on that list she needs to capture at least four more majors. That is not out of the realm of possibility. She could well do that over the next three years.

Clearly, Serena’s serve carried her to her fifth Wimbledon title. In her seven matches, she served no fewer than 102 aces, held in 77 of 85 service games, and displayed a consistency and accuracy on her delivery that she has never surpassed. She faced a distinguished trio in Petra Kvitova (the No. 4 seed), Victoria Azarenka (No. 2 seed), and the undervalued Radwanska (No. 3). In those three matches, she was broken only three times. Williams will move up to No. 4 in the new rankings on Monday, with Azarenka back to No. 1, Radwanska at No. 2, and Maria Sharapova at No. 3. But if Serena maintains this level of intensity and commitment, if she can stay largely injury free, if she can keep treating every major with the seriousness she did this particular Wimbledon, Williams will indeed take at least two more Grand Slam championships.

She is the oldest Wimbledon women’s champion since Navratilova took her record ninth singles title in 1990 at 33. But, in many ways, despite her medical woes, despite the aggravating injuries, despite everything, Serena Williams is a very young 30, with a very wide range of ambitions. As she said after her win, “I feel amazing out there. This whole tournament I felt great physically. So I think it’s definitely the beginning of something great. I hope it is… My target is the next tournament, followed by the next Slam. You know what I mean? I don’t think that far in advance. Just let me do it a little bit at a time.”

Even her mind seems uncluttered now. To be sure, Serena Williams was a worthy Wimbledon winner. The feeling grows that she is as motivated now as she has ever been. On top of that, the other leading players—from Sharapova to Azarenka, Kvitova to Radwanska—want no part of playing Serena Williams. They simply can’t contain her when she is in this form.

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Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He was a columnist and editor for World Tennis Magazine from 1974-91. Starting in 1992, he was a senior correspondent for Tennis Week Magazine. During the 1970's and 1980's he served as a statistician for NBC, CBS and ABC on their tennis telecasts. Since 1982 he has been covering Wimbledon and the French Open for CBS radio. He has been a columnist for tennischannel.com since 2007. You can purchase Steve's latest book "The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time" here.