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Steve Flink: Serena Striking Back

4/14/2008 5:48:00 PM

by Steve Flink

Watching Serena Williams compete in recent weeks, I have sensed that her commitment to the game now has reached a new level of maturity and professionalism. She commenced her 2008 campaign with a disappointing performance against Jelena Jankovic in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open. On that occasion, she looked way out of sorts. That was not the way she wanted to start the season. On her way to her appointment with Jankovic, Serena had been so impressive that it seemed entirely possible that she would defend her crown "Down Under" and come away with a ninth major title in the process.

To be sure, that was jarring for Williams. But look at what she has done since. Serena has not lost a match since her setback against Jankovic. She captured the crown at Bangalore, defeating the cunning Patty Schnyder in the championship match after saving a match point against her sister Venus in the penultimate round. A few weeks ago, Serena defended her hard court championship in Miami, taking the Sony Ericsson Open with victories over three top five players--- No. 1 Justine Henin, Svetlana Kuznetsova and Jankovic. Last weekend, she came through again, winning an important clay court event in Charleston, South Carolina. At the 35th Anniversary Family Circle Cup, she prevailed in a hard fought, three set quarterfinal with Maria Sharapova, and eventually claimed the top prize by ousting the persistent Vera Zvonareva 6-4, 3-6, 6-3 in the final.

Serena has now collected triumphs in her last three tournaments, and has swept 15 matches in a row. She has driven her way back to No. 6 in the world. She is playing well. But the best news for Serena is that she is not yet in peak form, and, as long as she avoids serious injuries, she will inevitably lift her game a few notches in the months ahead. My feeling is that she is almost too eager to win big matches and secure as many championships as possible. A case in point was the final of Miami. She was crushing a highly vulnerable Jankovic, racing to a 6-1, 3-0, lead. She was up a set and two service breaks, poised to win emphatically in straight sets. Despite losing her serve once, Serena still reached 5-3 in that second set, but lost four games in a row to drop the second set.

In the third set, Serena reestablished her authority, gliding to a 5-0 lead. But, clearly overanxious, unmistakably apprehensive despite such a big cushion, Serena squandered a bunch of match points and lost three games in a row. Finally, Serena got the job done, recording a 6-1, 5-7, 6-3 win. Let’s fast forward to her run in Charleston. During a three set, round of 16 win over Katarina Srebotnik, Serena went over on her ankle but she recovered. The next day, she held back Sharapova 7-5, 4-6, 6-1. Serena could well have lost that contest. Sharapova served for the first set at 5-4. The Russian led 5-2, 40-0 in the second set but was hard pressed to close it out. And then Serena pulled away confidently in the third set.

When Sharapova’s coach Michael Joyce visited her at courtside after the first and second sets, ESPN aired his remarks to his charge. In both instances--- after Sharapova lost the first set, and following her close call in the second--- Joyce spoke candidly to his player about his misgivings. Here is a sampling of what he said to Sharapova about the way she was conducting business against Williams: “She [Serena] hits one good shot and your attitude completely changes. Are you going to let it bother you for two games?... I’m just telling you that you've got to take care of your side of the court and that’s it. You can’t worry about what she’s doing all the time. You do your stuff and hang tough. You’ve got to believe you can beat this girl.”

Those comments from Joyce made a great deal of sense. Sharapova was preoccupied with Serena. Serena was reading her serve beautifully, and rifling back deep, penetrating returns that had Sharapova off balance and on her heels. Sharapova was constantly forced onto the defensive by the piercing returns of Williams. It was rattling her. And Joyce realized that Williams was getting to Sharapova psychologically. It was not gamesmanship; it was the combination of Serena’s unrelenting aggression and her unbending self belief. Serena had destroyed Sharapova twice last year--- conceding a mere five games in four sets--- and one of those triumphs was a victory for the American in the 2007 Australian Open final.

Serena was sporadically brilliant against Sharapova in Charleston and her superior athleticism and shot making flexibility were abundantly evident. As is often the case these days, Serena not only drives the ball off both sides relatively flat with outstanding depth, but she also rolls the ball crosscourt at acute angles to open up the court. No one in the women’s game can match her in that department. When Williams plays the short angles off both sides, her shots land a few inches inside both the service line and the side line, opening up the court for Serena to take utter control. It is a play that gives her game another dimension, and a sign of her growing tactical awareness.

But she can still be guilty of a few self inflicted wounds. In the Charleston final against Zvonareva, she seemed to have the match completely under control. Serena took the first set comfortably, and twice had Zvonareva trapped at 15-40, in the first and fifth games of the second set. Zvonareva, a tough competitor, squirmed away. Serving at 2-3, having not been broken in the match, Serena double faulted at break point down. Zvonareva secured the set, and then broke Serena on another double fault to take a 2-1 final set lead. Serena was wavering, but not for long. She won five of the next six games to get the victory. It was not terribly inspiring stuff from Serena, but it was gritty. And she came away deservedly with another crown.

The fundamental point I am making is this: Serena--- no matter how badly she may be playing, regardless of the circumstances--- always seems to be looking for any excuse to win. Her ferocity and deep well of determination is second to none in the women’s game. Her distaste for defeat is perhaps greater than that of any of her premier rivals. She can be a sore loser, and her press conferences following losses at the majors are not exactly graciously conducted. But she has a winning mentality, and has such deep inner conviction that she never seems to lose faith in herself. Sharapova has made serious strides as a competitor and she was superb in winning her third career major at the Australian Open in January. But she remains surprisingly vulnerable in some cases, and Williams clearly has made Sharapova doubt herself to a large degree in their recent head-to-head confrontations.

Justine Henin has become the ultimate professional in the women’s game but, after enjoying her most consistent and perhaps greatest year as a player in 2007, she has not been convincing this year, and she was routed by Sharapova at the Australian Open and by Serena Williams in Miami. On both occasions, Henin simply did not look like the same Henin as we have seen across recent years. But she is a resilient woman who will bounce back. So the stage is set for an excellent women’s year in 2008. Sharapova has the Australian Open ion her collection already. Henin, despite her recent woes, is the favorite to win the French Open for the fourth year in a row. At Wimbledon, Serena Williams is long overdue. She won there for the second time in 2003, made it back to the final in 2004 before losing to Sharapova, but has not fared well since.

I believe that a healthy Serena will win Wimbledon this year. And that would make the U.S. Open the most compelling of all the majors, because it might well tip the balance in favor of one player for the No. 1 world ranking. Sharapova, Henin and Serena Williams would all stand an excellent chance of winning in New York. At the end of September, Serena will be 27. She seems to have recognized at last that her windows of opportunity will not be open forever. She realizes that the time to go full force after the prestigious prizes is now.

Serena Williams will almost surely raise her game decidedly over the course of this season. She will make her presence known in the latter stages of all three remaining majors. She is in much better shape than she has been in a long while. The view here is that she is on her way to celebrating what may well be one of the most rewarding seasons of her career.

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