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Steve Flink: Sony Ericsson Championships 2008

11/10/2008 1:22:00 PM

by Steve Flink

After Venus Williams garnered the season-ending Sony Ericsson Championships in Doha, Qatar, taking away the last significant prize of 2008 with a series of hard fought triumphs across a productive week, claiming this prestigious title for the first time in her illustrious career, it occurred to me that her triumph was long overdue. Amazingly, the seven time major champion had never appeared in the final of the WTA Tour's season-concluding event for the top eight players in the world. Even more remarkably, she had only twice appeared in the tournament, losing to Martina Hingis in a stirring semifinal at Madison Square Garden in 1999, bowing again in the penultimate round three years later in Los Angeles when she was forced to retire with a leg injury at 5-0 down in the first set against Kim Clijsters.

Tendinitis kept her out of the 1998 event. Anemia forced her away in 2000. A wrist injury sidelined Venus in 2001. In 2004, an aggravated abdomen kept her out. And last year, Williams was not well, withdrawing with an illness. So the 28-year-old has had more than her share of misfortune at the end of a good many years. That was why it was nice to see her grab the top honor in Doha. No one could say she did not deserve her victory.

Consider the work she had to put in. Down 5-2 in the opening set of her first match against Dinara Safina, she recouped for a straight set win. Next, she gained a difficult three set victory over Elena Dementieva. Facing her sister Serena, she lost the first set but battled back to collect 12 of the last 13 games in a 5-7, 6-1, 6-0 win. In the semifinals, Venus was stretched close to her limits by the top seed Jelena Jankovic, but managed to hold back her formidable rival 6-2, 2-6, 6-3 in probably the best match of the week. In the final round, Williams confronted the surprise player of the week in Vera Zvonareva, who was the last to qualify. But, once more, Venus was not found wanting when the chips were down.

The final featured a bizarre opening set. Zvonareva--- who had upended Dementieva in the semifinals after ousting Jankovic, Svetlana Kuznetsova and Ana Ivanovic in round robin play--- took control at the outset and built a commanding 5-2 lead. At 5-3, she served for the set, reaching triple set at 40-0. Williams was characteristically tenacious, as she so often is when her back is to the wall. She walloped an inside-out forehand return winner to save the first set point, then used an inside-out backhand to create the opening for a two-hander that she nailed crosscourt for another winner.

It was now 40-30 for Zvonareva. She approached deep to the Williams forehand, read her adversary's down the line pass, but mishandled a backhand volley badly. Three set points gone. The 24-year-old Russian earned a fourth, and played it for all it was worth. But, on the 23rd stroke of that rally, Zvonareva missed a routine two-hander crosscourt. Williams broke back in that ninth game and then held for 5-5. They proceeded to a tie-break, and here Venus was serving with a 5-1 lead.

The set was surely over, or was it? Zvonareva had other notions. She swept six points in a row as Venus self destructed, and the Russian was out in front at one set to love. A lesser woman than Venus might well have been distraught to lose a set that was so much within her grasp, and it could have cost her the match and a title she clearly wanted with all of her heart. But Williams simply got back to work at once, and left her missed opportunity behind her. She blasted her way methodically through the second set at love, dropping only seven points on her way to 4-0. In the final set, she went ahead 2-0, lost her serve in the third game, but then swept four of the last five games to close out the account 6-7 (5), 6-0, 6-2.

Zvonareva suffered an unmistakable mental meltdown as Venus broke back for 3-1 in the third, but the American was composed and assertive down the stretch as she came through and won a title many consider the "fifth major." In the semifinals against Jankovic--- who had already sealed the No. 1 world ranking for the year before Doha--- Williams gave a more impressive performance. Williams was rifling ground strokes into wide open spaces all across the opening set, and serving with awesome power and precision. But then her forehand--- always her make or break stroke--- deserted her. Nevertheless, Venus regrouped and went up a break in the third. Serving at 3-2 in that final set, she saved no fewer than five break points.

Both players knew full well that this game was going to decide the outcome of the match, one way or the other. Had Jankovic broken and reached 3-3, I would have liked her chances. But Williams stifled her adversary at this crucial intersection. On four of the five break points, Venus got her explosive first serve in. That big first serve forced a short return on the first break point, and Williams easily put away a forehand down the line. On the second, Jankovic went for her trademark two-hander down the line but caught the net tape. The third time Jankovic reached break point, Venus erupted with an immense forehand inside-out winner. On the fourth, a kicking second serve into the body provoked an errant return. Finally, on the last break point, Venus opened up the court with a sharply angled crosscourt forehand, then moved forward for a solid forehand down the line approach volley, and she then punched a backhand volley confidently into the clear.

After six deuces, Williams held on for 4-2, and never looked back, recording a 6-2, 2-6, 6-3 over a player who had beaten her five of the last six times they had clashed, including their most recent encounter in Stuttgart. That was a considerable achievement. Winning the tournament was a fitting way for Williams to end her year. Having won her fifth Wimbledon singles championship in the middle of the season---- she had not won a single event heading into the fortnight at the All England Club--- Venus did not play particularly well until late in the season. But then she clinched her birth in Doha by winning in Zurich, and thus finishes 2008 with an impressive 9 match winning streak. Moreover, she beat the top three ranked players in the world--- Jankovic, Safina and Serena Williams--- in the course of winning Doha. Only Steffi Graf at the French Open in 1999 and Serena in 2002 at Miami had achieved that remarkable feat.

So Venus Williams deserves full marks for what she accomplished in Doha. Being pushed to three sets four times in five matches and surviving them all was no mean feat. But the fact remains that Venus--- as towering a figure as she remains, as resilient as she unmistakably is as a competitor--- still won only three tournaments in 2008. So despite ruling at the world's premier tournament and capturing the biggest prize outside of the four Grand Slam events, Venus concludes 2008 at No. 6 in the world. She played only 14 tournaments across the entire year, which made rising higher in the rankings a tall order.

I have mixed feelings about the 2008 campaign in women's tennis. Justine Henin's departure from the sport in May was a big blow. Her professionalism, all court prowess, and competitive fire were sorely missed. Maria Sharapova seemed certain to succeed Henin as world champion, but the Australian Open champion missed most of the second half of the season with a recurring shoulder injury. French Open champion Ana Ivanovic slumped badly in the second half of the season, won a tournament near the end, but then was hampered by a cold in Doha and pulled out after two losses.

Jankovic was a pillar of consistency, and for the second year in a row she won more matches than any other female player. She reached her first major final in New York at the U.S. Open. But she did not win a Grand Slam event, and therefore her status at No. 1 is diminished. If Serena Williams had been the victor in Doha, she could have made a case for herself as the best big occasion player in the female game. She had, after all, won the U.S. Open and reached the final of Wimbledon. But Serena withdrew from Doha after losing to her sister, saying she had injured her stomach during that confrontation. I believe her because the performance she gave in those last two sets against Venus was inexplicably abysmal.

Across the board, it was a muddled picture for the women in 2008. Having four different winners at the majors--- Sharapova, Ivanovic, Venus Williams, and Serena Williams--- was a good thing in many ways. Venus winning in Doha reminded us that her match playing maturity, temperament and enduring greatness should not be taken for granted. Hopefully, she will keep pushing hard next year. I also am optimistic that Jankovic will finally reward herself with a major in 2009.

Unfortunately, the Sony Ericsson Championships in Doha symbolized the plight of the women's game in 2008. To be sure, there was some sparkling play and terrific matches. But with Sharapova already long out of the picture, it was a shame that Ivanovic was plagued by bad health and that Serena hurt herself. To lose both players in that fashion was emblematic of the entire season in many ways.

The hope here is that all of the leading players stay healthier in 2009 than they did in the year gone by. If that were to happen, the women's game would be all the more absorbing. Much to my chagrin, women's tennis in 2008 was disrupted by too much unpredictability in the upper regions of the sport. I am confident that next year is going to be very different.

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