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Steve Flink: Serena is the real #1

10/29/2012 2:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

To understand the hierarchy of the women’s game in the year 2012, simply examine the facts. Victoria Azarenka has concluded the season as the No. 1 ranked player in the world by virtue of capturing six titles, including her first major at the Australian Open. Standing at No. 2 is none other than Maria Sharapova, who completed a career Grand Slam with her triumph at Roland Garros. She captured three titles and reached six finals across a stellar season that was clearly one of the finest in her career. Finishing at No. 3 was the one and only Serena Williams. The 31-year-old American collected seven championships over the course of 2012, had the best match winning percentage of all the women (58-4, .935), and was undeniably the dominant competitor at the most prestigious events.

Remember that Serena secured the two most important tournaments in tennis by coming through at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. Moreover, she was victorious at the Olympic Games, surely the biggest event outside of the four majors. And now she has emerged victorious at the TEB BNP Paribas WTA Championships in Istanbul, taking the most highly valued crown after the Olympics by sweeping through the elite eight woman field in Turkey without the loss of a set. To be sure, Serena deprived herself of a chance to finish the year residing at the very top of her sport by not competing following the U.S. Open up until Istanbul. Had she played a couple of tournaments in that in that span, she might have given herself the chance to gather the necessary ranking points to keep pace with Azarenka and Sharapova. Another reason Williams had to settle for No. 3 was the inauspicious way she commenced the season, suffering a fourth round defeat against left-hander Ekaterina Makarova at the Australian Open, falling for the first time ever in the first round of a Grand Slam event against Virginie Razzano at the French Open.

But the fact remains that Williams surely did more than enough to be considered far and away the best woman tennis player in the world for 2012. On top of her other lofty achievements—taking four of the six most valued prizes of the year—Serena demonstrated an unmistakable superiority over her foremost rivals; she was 5-0 over Azarenka, 3-0 versus Sharapova, and she closed the year by winning her last 18 matches against top five opponents. She seems to almost always save her best for those who have the largest reputations.

That fact was affirmed when Williams met Sharapova in the final of Istanbul for the TEB BNP Paribas WTA Championships crown. Sharapova had not beaten Williams since 2004 at the WTA Season-Ending Championships, when the tournament was held in Los Angeles. Since then, she had lost to Williams no fewer than eight consecutive times, most recently bowing 6-0, 6-1 against the American in the Olympic final on the lawns of the All England Club. Sharapova was surely burdened by her hard string of defeats against such a formidable adversary, but she is a consummate professional, and a player with a reservoir of pride few in her field can match.

Sharapova opened the proceedings with surprising confidence. From 0-15 in the first game of the match, she swept four points in a row to hold at 15, serving consistently to the wavering Williams forehand, backing up her delivery adeptly. The American answered emphatically, holding at love for 1-1, connecting with three out of four first serves, releasing a pair of backhand winners. But Sharapova retaliated swiftly, holding at 15 for 2-1. With Williams serving in the fourth game, Sharapova reached 30-30 as Serena double faulted, but the American took the next two points with a pair of un-returnable first serves. Through those first four games, Sharapova held her own, and a 2-2 scoreline must have been encouraging to the 25-year-old Russian.

And yet, Williams was ready to reshape the contest. Sharapova double faulted on the first point of the fifth game, creating just the opening Williams needed. Serena advanced to 15-40 on a forehand driven marginally long by Sharapova. Williams sealed the break with a penetrating backhand down the line that was too much for Sharapova to handle. Now up a break at 3-2, Williams exploited her mightiest weapon to carry her onward. She held at 15 for 4-2, making four of five first serves, acing Sharapova three times, confounding Sharapova with the mastery of her placement.

Williams was clearly finding her range—particularly off the forehand—but Sharapova was competing with ferocity and purpose, dictating her share of exchanges from the backcourt, making good use of the body serve to keep Williams slightly off balance on her returns. At 2-4, Sharapova endured a five deuce game on her serve, saving two break points in the process. Williams missed a big opening for a forehand passing shot on one, and Sharapova coaxed a forehand return error from her opponent on the other. Sharapova held on tenuously for 3-4, but Williams was in a groove on serve, holding at 30 for 5-3, producing another ace in that game for 40-15.

Sharapova held at 15 for 4-5 with an ace out wide, but Williams was unrelenting on serve. In the tenth game, she raced to 40-0 with a forehand down the line winner and two unstoppable first serves. The American then double faulted and was pressured into a forehand error. Two set points for Williams were gone, but one remained. At 40-30, her match playing intelligence was striking. She released a heavy kicker, essentially a second serve disguised as a first serve. The ball bounded high and wide, well out of Sharapova’s reach for a timely ace. Williams took the set 6-4.

Sharapova had been admirable in that opening set, losing her serve only once, standing toe to toe with Williams as much as possible from the baseline, performing largely with conviction. Yet she had not been able to stop a resolute Williams, and that was not going to change. Serving in the opening game of the second set, Sharapova could not contain an aggressive Williams, who broke the Russian by moving forward commandingly to put away an overhead from very close range. Williams sensed that victory was not far around the corner, but realized there was much work left to do. She held at 15 for 2-0 with an ace.

After Sharapova held in a deuce game for 1-2, Serena went right back to work. Down 0-30, she swept four points in a row, producing three consecutive winners followed by a punishing backhand crosscourt that was unmanageable for Sharapova. Williams thus moved to 3-1. Sharapova held on in the fifth game but Williams was unshakable. She held at love for 4-2, opening and closing that game with aces. Sharapova gamely saved a break point in the seventh game and held, but that would be it for her. Although Serena made good on only four of eight first serves and was pushed to deuce, she still held for 5-3 and then broke Sharapova at 15 in the ninth game with a dazzling collection of four outright winners in a row, three with crackling service returns of the highest order. Williams fashioned a 6-4, 6-3 triumph over Sharapova without losing her serve, without facing a single break point. Williams was enormously consistent on serve the whole match, successful with 70% of her first serves. She also had 40 winners and only 14 unforced errors. With those numbers, she doesn’t lose very often.

Despite her defeat, Sharapova had a terrific week and ended the year on a high note. She had lost to Azarenka in seven of their eleven career appointments leading up to Istanbul. In 2012 alone, Sharapova had only stopped Azarenka once, and that was on clay in the final of Stuttgart. Azarenka had won all of their hard court collisions, crushing Maria 6-3, 6-0 in the Australian Open final, stopping her again in the championship match at Indian Wells, overcoming an obstinate Sharapova in a three set semifinal at the U.S. Open, and recently upending her adversary in a straight set final at Beijing.

But in the semifinals at Istanbul, Sharapova was the decidedly better player on the hard courts. She lost her serve only once in two sets, returned with severity and precision, dictated the rallies ruthlessly, and rhythmically controlled the tempo of the contest with excellent depth and timing. Sharapova established her superiority early on. The world’s two top ranked players traded service breaks in the third and fourth games, but thereafter Sharapova more than held the upper hand. She was destroying Azarenka in backhand to backhand exchanges, and serving effectively out wide in the deuce court and down the T in the ad court.

Sharapova broke again for a 3-2 first set lead. Serving at 40-15 in the following game, she dealt admirably with an awkwardly low ball from Azarenka, driving a two-hander into the clear for a brilliant crosscourt winner. Azarenka held for 3-4 but Sharapova served an ace down the T to hold at 30 for 5-3. Serving for the set two games later, Sharapova struggled. Azarenka saved a set point with one of her typically deep and penetrating returns down the middle, but Sharapova earned a second set point and did not squander it, kicking her second serve high and wide to Azarenka’s backhand to elicit and error. Set to Sharapova, 6-4.

Sharapova was serving remarkably well. In that first set, her 74% first serve percentage was primarily what enabled her to prevail. Confident and very determined, Sharapova surged to 15-40 in the opening game of the second set. She chased down a ball hit wide to her backhand, threw up a superb defensive lob, and forced Azarenka back to the baseline. Sharapova then stepped in on her next shot, took the ball early, and laced a forehand winner into a wide open space. Sharapova quickly held for 2-0 and then broke Azarenka in the third game on a double fault from the world No. 1.

Sharapova was in command, and not retreating. She held for 4-0 at love with an ace down the T. Azarenka made one last stand, holding in the fifth game, pushing Sharapova to deuce nine times in the sixth game. But Sharapova would cede no ground, holding for 5-1. Two games later, she served it out with gusto, holding at love with four first serves in a row. Sharapova had triumphed 6-4, 6-2. Surely, Azarenka was not in peak form. She had sealed the No. 1 ranking for the year with her last round robin victory over Li Na, and so her clash with Sharapova was not a must win situation for the woman from Belarus. But the fact remains that Sharapova was inspired, eager, sharp and strikingly self-assured. She wanted this match badly, and was a worthy victor.

Meanwhile, Williams accounted for world No. 4 Agnieszka Radwanska 6-2, 6-1 in the other semifinal. Radwanska, of course, had surprisingly extended Williams to three sets in the Wimbledon final. She is resourceful, cagey, a dependable competitor, a cunning strategist, and probably the best defensive player in the women’s game. But she had done herself in by playing two marathon matches in the round robin portion of the tournament. She had lost the best match of the tournament to an unwavering Sharapova 5-7, 7-5, 7-5, and had held back French Open finalist Sara Errani 6-7 (6), 7-6, 6-4. Those debilitating contests had left Radwanska thoroughly depleted, which was not how she wanted to approach a duel with Williams.

Serena moved rapidly to 2-0 in the first set, was caught at 2-2, but captured ten of the last eleven games from there to record an easy triumph. Williams was cracking her returns with regal authority, and moving with alacrity. Radwanska was understandably a step slower than usual after her exceedingly hard work in the round robin. The result was almost inevitable. But the fact remained that Radwanska had enjoyed her greatest season yet as a professional tennis player. She had finished three of the four previous seasons among the top ten in the world, reaching No. 8 at the end of 2011. But she improved immensely in 2012 and finished her year stylishly.

No one, however, could really stay with Serena Williams. Despite her long break from tournament tennis following the U.S. Open, she showed up in Istanbul ready to compete with vigor, to play her kind of unbridled tennis, to collect another title at the end of a magnificent season. She fittingly mentioned after the match that her 2012 season could not quite measure up to her 2002 campaign, the first year in her estimable career that Williams had finished at No. 1 in the world.  Seven years later, she replicated that feat.  But 2002 was the highlight of her career because she won three of the four biggest tournaments. After skipping the Australian Open, she was unbeaten at the majors, collecting her only French Open singles title in the process.

While 2012 was marginally less impressive than 2002, the fact remains that she was astounding over the second half of the season, capturing 48 of her last 50 matches. She had the most versatile record of all the top players, winning two tournaments on clay, two huge events on grass, and three more on hard courts. Williams has now been victorious in 46 of 61 career singles finals. She has won the season-ending WTA Championships three times. She has amassed 15 Grand Slam singles championships in her career. Take nothing away from Azarenka, who won 69 of 79 matches in 2012, setting a high standard throughout. Admire Sharapova, who was 60-11.

Remember, though, that these two great players finished ahead of Williams simply because they competed more frequently. Williams played 62 matches in 2012—nine less than Sharapova, 17 fewer than Azarenka. But no matter what the numbers may suggest, authorities know full well that Serena Williams was unassailably the best woman tennis player in the world for 2012.

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Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. 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.