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Steve Flink: Back on Top

9/8/2008 12:08:00 AM

by Steve Flink

FLUSHING MEADOWS--- When Serena Williams virtually took over the world of women's tennis back in 2002 and 2003, it seemed as if the sky really would be her limit. She captured the last three majors of 2002--- Roland Garros, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open--- and then opened 2003 with a triumph at the Australian Open. Despite a semifinal loss in a much heralded and controversial three set battle with Justine Henin at the French Open that year, Serena recouped admirably to defend her crown at Wimbledon.

Having already won her first major at the 1999 U.S. Open when she was only 17, Serena found herself in an enviable position after that Wimbledon victory in 2003--- with six Grand Slam singles championships in her collection. And the growing feeling among the cognoscenti was that Williams could surely be on her way to double digit figures for triumphs at the majors. Serena was such a major force that it was inconceivable she would not keep securing majors in clusters.

It did not, of course, work out that way. Williams had multiple problems with her knees. She dropped from her lofty status of No. 1 in the world in August of 2003, slipped to No. 7 at the end of 2004, fell out of the top ten the following year, and stood embarrassingly at No. 95 upon the conclusion of 2006. Moreover, consider this: after that stirring run she had in 2002 and 2003 when she ruled at five Grand Slam events, she had only won two more since as she headed into this U.S. Open. Williams was victorious at the 2005 and 2007 Australian Opens, but came through nowhere else when it mattered.

That is why her victory here at the 2008 U.S. Open last night was so unmistakably gratifying for Williams. She had not won at her country's Grand Slam championship since 2002. Moreover, she had suffered a bruising loss earlier in the summer against her sister Venus at Wimbledon, bowing in straight sets after going into that contest fully believing she would win. I have seen more than my share of Serena Williams's press conferences after big matches at the majors, and frequently she has not accepted defeat with much grace. But I have never seen her in such utter despondency as was the case following her final round setback this year at the All England Club.

Conversely, I have never witnessed such unabashed joy and exultation from Williams as I did last night in Arthur Ashe Stadium. This triumph had, after all, been a long time in the making. On top of that, she held back the wily and resourceful Jelena Jankovic in the final, which was no insignificant achievement. Jankovic--- seeded two places above Williams at No. 2--- had toppled Serena in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open at the start of the 2008 season, and had pushed Williams hard in a three set final at Miami in April.

This time around, the No. 2 seed from Serbia--- appearing in her first major final, coming off a win over Olympic gold medalist Elena Dementieva--- was eager to succeed on the big stage in New York. Jankovic--- who reminds me in some ways of Martina Hingis--- had suffered five semifinal losses at the majors before her breakthrough here, and she was determined to make the most of an opportunity that may not come her way too many times in the years ahead. Jankovic got off to a good start, building an early 2-1, 40-0 lead. For a brief moment, it looked as if she might put herself in a position to take that opening set, but Jankovic faltered at that crucial moment and let that service game slip away inexplicably.

Serena elevated her game decidedly. Jankovic is the most masterful defensive player in the women's game, displaying uncanny ball control, digging out one seemingly impossible shot after another off both sides, giving nothing away. She makes you beat her. She forces you to play two or three extra shots over and over again to win points. In turn, she is creative and imaginative, and her backhand down the line is one of the best in the sport. And Jankovic can step up the pace impressively when she is in charge of a rally.

Serena fully understood what she was up against. She was selectively aggressive as she picked Jankovic apart in that first set, both patient and purposeful. In breaking Jankovic for 4-2, she rallied deliberately until she found just the right opening to unleash a backhand down the line winner. She moved to 5-2 and, despite losing two games in a row, Serena broke again in the tenth game to seal the set 6-4.

Across the second set, Serena seemed to gradually get worn down. This final was played in relatively calm conditions in the cool evening air. That made it more difficult for Williams to take command from the back of the court, to assert her authority and fully exploit her power. She was not always overwhelming Jankovic with the velocity of her shots, and that meant Serena had to work exceedingly hard to gain the upper hand in the rallies.

Nevertheless, Williams may have been too conservative at certain junctures in the middle of the second set, and it almost cost her dearly. She led 3-2, 15-40 but allowed Jankovic to escape in that important game. On the second of those break points, she drove a flat forehand long despite being under no pressure. At 3-3, Serena was serving at 40-15 and had three game points, only to lose her serve.

The way I saw it, two things were happening at this stage. Williams had to cover so much court that the effort was taking its toll. She was showing signs of fatigue. And she was getting increasingly tense, realizing how much she wanted to win the last major event of the season. Jankovic, meanwhile, was taking her game up a notch, sensing that if she could push Serena into a third set, she might have the edge. There is no doubt in my mind that Jankovic would have been considerably fresher in a third set. In any case, Jankovic held for 5-3, and then reached triple set point with Williams serving in the ninth game.

This was the absolute essence of the match, and Serena demonstrated right then and there why she is a great champion and how fearless she is when the chips are on the line. At 3-5, 0-40., she took a short ball off the backhand and drove it confidently down the line for a clean winner. At 15-40, she moved forward and eventually won the point with a solid overhead taken on the bounce, playing that shot with controlled aggression to force an error. And then at 30-40, she took the initiative once more, moving brilliantly from defense to offense, blasting a two-hander crosscourt to provoke an errant backhand from Jankovic. On all three set points, Serena got her potent first serve in.

Serena held on gamely for 4-5, but her troubles were not totally behind her. Serving for the set at 5-4, Jankovic reached set point for the fourth time with an ace, but her nerves let her down badly. She double faulted long, pushing the serve instead of hitting it. Serena then came at Jankovic forcefully again, releasing an impeccable forehand swing volley into the clear. It was 5-5.

Now the competitive juices were really flowing for Serena. At 5-5, 30-30, she scampered forward beautifully to cover a Jankovic drop volley, rolling her forehand down the line. Jankovic was forced to back up away from the net, but she made Serena play an awkward high backhand volley. Now Jankovic played a respectable lob but a determined Serena's smash was too much for the Serbian. At 40-30, Williams lunged to her left for a spectacular backhand drop volley winner. She was only one game away from the glory.

Jankovic made one last stand. She saved a match point at 5-6, 30-40, moved to game point, but double faulted again. Back at match point for the second time, Serena saw daylight for an angled backhand crosscourt winner, and thus concluded the battle on the brightest possible note with a dazzling exclamation point of a shot. Williams won 6-4, 7-5, replicating her 2002 feat of winning the Open without losing a set in the entire tournament.

Her numbers for this final were impressive. Serena had 44 winners, 29 more than her adversary. That compensated for Serena making 17 more unforced errors than the reliable Jankovic. Most importantly, Serena won 28 of her 34 net approaches, thus taking 82% of those points when she came forward.

Serena was so focused on winning her third U.S. Open and ninth major that it never even occurred to her that she was in the process of reclaiming the No. 1 ranking she last held in August of 2003. Now it is up to her to keep up the great work and start moving toward more Grand Slam championship victories, and finally hit double digits at the majors. I have no doubt that she will do just that. Williams has been beaten only three times in twelve Grand Slam tournament finals, losing twice to her sister and once to Maria Sharapova. There is no one out there now who is a better big match player.

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