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Steve Flink: Serena's Willpower Triumphs Again

1/30/2010 1:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink 

Coming through in the finals of major championships is about much more than striking the tennis ball impeccably, devising the right strategy and revising a game plan when necessary, or simply playing the game to the best of your ability. To prevail in these title round contests when so much is riding on the outcome, a player must find a way to manage his or her emotions, to rise to rather than be diminished by the occasion, and be prepared for a battle of fluctuating fortunes and meet that test with immense composure and an absolutely unwavering will to win. When both players are performing with full intensity and giving themselves the chances they need to succeed, the winner is usually the individual who is unassailable under pressure. The greatest champions secure the largest prizes not by accident, but because they ask so much of themselves, because they have the propensity to confront danger and retain an inner calm, because they are not afraid to fail.

That is how it has always been for Serena Williams, who demonstrated once more “Down Under” that no one in the world today can surpass her ability to sedulously stand her ground in the finals of Grand Slam events. This time around, she somehow held off a determined and reinvigorated Justine Henin 6-4, 3-6, 6-2 to capture a fifth Australian Open crown. She elevated her record in major finals to 12-3, and eclipsed Henin in their first meeting ever in a championship match at a Grand Slam tournament. That was no mean feat, for the Belgian is a redoubtable competitor herself and a woman who could not mask the severity of her disappointment after this bruising defeat against Serena. But Henin need not be too hard on herself. In the 15 “Big Four” finals that Williams has contested, only two women--- her sister Venus twice (at the 2001 U.S. Open and 2008 Wimbledon), and Maria Sharapova (at the 2004 Wimbledon)—have toppled the prodigious American.

The score line of this Australian Open showdown for the title does not do justice to a first class confrontation. It was the first women’s final to go three sets at a major since Henin was beaten by Amelie Mauresmo at Wimbledon in 2006. The women had settled 13 major finals in a row in straight sets leading up to the Williams-Henin collision. Henin and Mauresmo had an absorbing match that afternoon on the lawns of the All England Club, but the tennis played by Williams and Henin on this occasion, and the suspense they created, made for the best women’s final round clash at a major since Venus Williams saved a match point to oust Lindsay Davenport 4-6, 7-6 (4), 9-7 in the Wimbledon final of 2005. To be sure, a match of this caliber was a long time in the making.

To put it in perspective, all three sets hung in the balance and could have gone either way. The tone was set in the very first game. Despite a trademark sliced serve wide for an ace on the first point, Williams fell behind 15-40 as Henin approached down the middle off the forehand to provoke an errant pass from the American. Serena was unruffled. She swung another well directed serve out wide in the deuce court to set up a down the line forehand winner for 30-40, and then Henin miss-hit a forehand return to make it deuce. Henin made Williams work inordinately hard to hold, but after four deuces Serena advanced to 1-0. Henin quickly moved to 1-1, but Williams had another taxing service game. She sent a timely ace down the T to save a break point, and struggled through five deuces before holding on for 2-1.

Frustration seemed to set in briefly for Henin. She played an abysmal game to lose her serve at love and fell behind 3-1, but still the best server in the women’s game was hard pressed to hold her delivery. In the fifth game, Serena was down 15-40 again, but a thundering service winner down the T in the deuce court followed by another huge serve down the T that Henin could not handle brought Williams back to deuce. She took the next two points for 4-1.  Williams had been down break point in all three service games up until that stage, but with typical gumption she had fought off all five. She seemed poised to run out the set.

“Not so fast,” Henin seemed to say. She buckled down admirably, holding her serve at 30 for 2-4. With Serena serving in the seventh game, the 28-year-old American found herself back in familiar territory, behind 15-40 once more. Her wide slice serve opened up the court, and allowed her to get to the net for a routine backhand volley winner. It was 30-40. Serena had cast aside six break points, and surely Henin was wondering what it would take to break the pattern. The Belgian took matters into her own hands, unleashing a clean winner off the forehand to break back for 3-4.

Henin had some momentum, and she took her third game in a row to make it 4-4, holding at love as Serena’s forehand went astray and her returns repeatedly let her down. She had every reason to be concerned after fighting so hard in all of her service games, but at 4-4 Williams was unstoppable. She connected with three out of four first serves, including a remarkably precise 118 MPH ace out wide in the Ad court for 30-0. Williams had a brisk service game at last, holding at love, shifting the burden back to Henin. The Belgian served to stay in the set at 4-5, double faulting on the first point, coming up with a second serve ace down the T for 15-15, falling behind 15-30, and then connecting for another ace down the T for 30-30.

Williams, however, was unrelenting. Henin double faulted to trail 30-40, but saved a set point with a body serve to the forehand that Williams could not get back into play. An apprehensive Henin missed a backhand slice long to give Williams a second set point, and this time Henin was a victim of misfortune. She drove her patented topspin backhand crosscourt, but the ball clipped the net cord and landed wide. Set to Williams, 6-4. The Henin comeback had been impressive, but Williams has reasserted herself and closed out the set with discipline and strategic acumen.

Henin had a tall task ahead of her. In 166 matches at the majors, Williams had lost only three times after winning the first set. In 40 previous contests at the Australian Open, she had never been beaten after taking the opening set. But the tenacious Belgian was still very much in the thick of the battle. After Serena released her sixth ace to hold at 15 for 1-0--- swinging her slice serve wide with pinpoint accuracy again--- and she then reached 15-40 with Henin serving in the second game. Here, Williams got in her own way, netting a backhand return, then driving a two-hander long  to make it deuce. Henin served an ace down the T and took the next point as well for 1-1.

In the third game of the second set, Henin broke Williams at love. At 0-40, Williams hit a drop volley that sat up, allowing Henin to charge forward and pass her easily off the backhand. Yet Williams calmly broke back for 2-2 with a deep return down the middle coaxing Henin into a mistake off the forehand. Williams easily held for 3-2, and had a break point in the following game.

Serena was one point away from taking a likely stranglehold on the match, but she was guilty of a glaring unforced error off the forehand, driving the ball wildly out of court. Henin held on for 3-3. Williams reached 30-0 on her serve in the seventh game. She produced a double fault on that 30-0 point that was way off the mark and long. Henin followed with a scintillating backhand down the line winner and took the next point for 30-40, but Serena wiped away a break point with an ace. A persistent Henin kept pressing on, approaching the net and making a deep forehand volley, then angling a backhand volley acutely crosscourt. Henin cracked a vintage backhand crosscourt that was too much for Williams, and the Belgian was up 4-3.

Amazingly, she did not lose another point in closing out the set. In holding for 5-3, she released winners off both sides and a service winner to hold at love. In the next game, Henin connected for two more outright winners and took advantage of two more unprovoked mistakes from Williams. It was one set all. Henin had won ten points in a row. Henin had thoroughly found her range, while Williams was very much at bay. As the third set commenced, the momentum did not shift. Serena made a cluster of errors as Henin held at love for 1-0, and when Henin read the American’s wide slice serve perfectly to reach 0-15 in the second game with a scorching forehand return winner crosscourt, the Belgian had now collected no fewer than 15 points in a row.

Williams finally ended that sequence and reached 15-15, but she drifted to 15-40 when she tried in vain to serve-and-volley. She was in danger of permanently losing control of the match, but did not despair. A crackling 122 MPH ace down the T in the deuce court got Serena to 30-40, and she made it to deuce with a deep forehand down the line making Henin scamper. Williams moved in to knock off a forehand swing volley into the clear. She held on for 1-1 with her ninth ace of the match. Henin’s five game winning streak was over, as was her growing sense of inner conviction. Williams easily broke for 2-1, but in the following game she missed three first serves in a row and Henin seized the initiative to reach 0-40. Serena saved two break points but Henin converted on the third with a beautifully struck inside-out forehand return forcing Williams into an errant backhand at full stretch.

It was 2-2. At 15-15 in the fifth game, Henin chased down an angled volley from Williams and caught her adversary off guard with a sliced backhand lob winner crosscourt. Henin could not afford to lose serve again here, and both players fully recognized the importance of this game. Henin double faulted into the net for 30-30, then missed her first serve again. Williams stepped in for a brilliant flat, two-handed backhand return winner into Henin’s backhand corner. At 30-40, Henin missed flagrantly as she went for a crosscourt winner, and Williams was back in front, ahead 3-2, and not about to waste this opportunity.

Serving at 3-2, 40-30, Williams hit an apparent ace down the T, but Henin challenged the call and the replay went in her favor. Williams then sent her second serve bravely into the same corner, and this time it was really an ace. She was up 4-2, and brimming with confidence. Henin was now facing an immovable force. Williams broke at 15 for 5-2, and served out the match in great style. She raced to 40-0 after hitting her eleventh and twelfth aces. Henin fended off one match point, but fittingly Williams sealed the verdict on the next one with yet another immaculately placed wide first serve opening up the court for a backhand winner crosscourt.

Both players acquitted themselves honorably. Henin had been gone from the game for 20 months after leaving in May of 2008, and in only her second tournament back she had been within striking distance of a major championship victory. The Belgian has restructured her game in many ways, shortening her backswing off the forehand and looking to come forward behind that shot or hit winners to end points quickly. She has made some significant adjustments on her serve as well, tampering with her motion and seeking to get more velocity on the first serve, developing a more pronounced slice on her second serve to keep it skidding low. She has even altered her majestic one-handed backhand in subtle yet significant ways.

Henin has clearly made up her mind that she must attack much more frequently in this phase of her career. She realizes that there is a growing brigade of big hitters out there and does not want to necessarily get in long rallies with these physically imposing players the way she once would have relished.  Against Williams, the diminutive Belgian (who stands just under 5’6”) was too determined for a long while to take every second serve return and charge the net behind them, but she missed too many topspin backhand returns while attempting to employ that tactic. As the match progressed, she found a better balance and she did not rush her returns as much or try to go in behind so many of them.

She will surely have time to grow increasingly comfortable with her revamped style of play. As the season progresses, Henin will keep attacking and looking to exploit her volley, but she may also revert somewhat to her old game and pick some adversaries apart with her extraordinary skills from the back of the court. In any case, it was terrific to witness the rebirth of a great rivalry, which Williams now leads 8-6. Henin would welcome meeting Williams back on the clay at Roland Garros, Williams would have the edge at Wimbledon, and they will return to neutral territory at the U.S. Open. I would not be surprised to see at least one and possibly two more finals at the Grand Slam events between these two stalwarts this season, although it will take a while for Henin to regain her rightful place as one of the top two players in the world on the Sony Ericsson WTA computer.

Meanwhile, Serena Williams can celebrate another milestone. For only the second time in her illustrious career, Serena has defended a Grand Slam title. The only previous time she realized that considerable feat was at Wimbledon in 2002 and 2003. She is now in a tie with Billie Jean King on the all time honor roll of Grand Slam tournament champions with 12 major titles. Only five female players have won more majors: Margaret Court holds the record with 24, followed by Steffi Graf with 22, Helen Wills Moody at 19, and Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova at 18.

A year or two ago, I did not believe Williams could catch Evert and Navratilova, but now I am not so sure. Even with Henin back in the upper echelons of the game, Serena still sets the gold standard as the best big match player in her profession. She is always fighting injuries, suffering unexpected losses outside of the majors, confronting new challengers, yet somehow enduring. She won her first major at the U.S. Open in 1999, so she has now recorded major tournament victories in three straight decades, a feat matched only by Navratilova among the women. Her sense of history seems to be growing with each passing year, and the view here is that this five time Australian Open champion is going to demand even more of herself in the next three years as she strives to realize more of her largest dreams.

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