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Steve Flink: Hanging Ten

1/31/2009 1:19:00 PM

by Steve Flink

Watching Serena Williams collect a tenth major singles championship, observing her devastatingly potent performance in obliterating poor Dinara Safina 6-0, 6-3 in the final, reflecting on her career long habit of saving her best stuff for the latter stages of the biggest events, I find myself struck once more by the absolute force of her will. Among the women, she is a singularly ferocious competitor, and no one can surpass her intensity or authority in a "Big Four" final. This time around, she smothered Safina from the outset with as disciplined a display as I have ever seen from her on a big occasion.

Was it as impressive as her 6-1, 6-2 rout of Maria Sharapova in the 2007 Australian Open final? Serena was up against a more formidable adversary on that occasion, and thus I rate that match as marginally superior to this one. But for outright consistency and sustained aggression, Serena was first rate in dismantling Safina. She produced 23 winners while making a mere 7 unforced errors. She lost her serve only once. She allowed Safina to hold serve just twice. Her shot selection was beyond reproach. In many ways, I have never seen her play a more purposeful match.

To be sure, Safina contributed to her demise. Appearing in her second major final, she never found her range, and her serve let her down flagrantly. Full of apprehension at the outset, she double faulted three times in the second game of the match, most damagingly at break point down. The last one was the worst as the Russian kicked her second serve feebly into the net. From that instant through the rest of the set, Williams was unstoppable. She took firm and utter control of the match and never looked back.

In sweeping the last four games of that first set, Serena took 16 of 18 points. Williams did not make a single unforced error in that impeccable stretch. She was taking her returns early, provoking error after error from an unsettled Safina, serving with excellent variety and deception, and playing the game with the complete self assurance of a woman who had no doubt that she was going to win. Safina never quite knew what hit her.

Briefly, at the start of the second set, Safina made some modest progress. She broke Williams in the opening game with a cleanly struck two-handed backhand return winner crosscourt. At last she was on the scoreboard, but Williams was not swayed. She broke right back in the following game, and then got another service break for 3-1 when Safina double faulted on break point again. The rest of the contest was nothing more than a formality. Serena served for the match at 5-3 and held commandingly at love. Leaving aside the one service game she conceded, Williams won 28 of 31 points on serve. In eight service games, Williams held at love no less than five times.

And so the 27-year-old American has now come through in 10 of the 13 major finals she has played. Only her sister Venus Williams (twice) and Sharapova (once) have managed to topple Serena in the finals of Grand Slam tournaments. That is striking evidence of her propensity to elevate her game for the big occasions. It is uncanny how frequently she has brought out her best when it has mattered the most. Time and again across the years, she has demonstrated that when she is confident, composed and at her zenith, her best tennis will beat just about anyone on every surface but clay.

Examining her record at the Grand Slam events, there can be no doubt that the Australian Open has been the best showcase for the talent, tenacity and perspicacity of Serena Williams. She has captured the title four times, which places Williams in a tie for the "Open Era" record with Margaret Court, Evonne Goolagong, Steffi Graf and Monica Seles. Curiously, Serena has won all of her titles in the odd numbered years, coming through in 2003, 2005, 2007 and 2009. In every one of those triumphant campaigns, Williams has been forced to rescue herself from precarious places.

In 2003, she was 1-5 down in the third and final set against the industrious Kim Clijsters, but Serena saved two match points at 2-5 and escaped 4-6, 6-3, 7-5. In the final of that tournament, she was pressed hard by her sister Venus before recording a 7-6 (4), 3-6, 6-4 victory. Two years later, Serena was on the brink of departure again in the semifinals against Sharapova, but this time she saved three match points and rallied for an improbable 2-6, 7-5, 8-6 win over the Russian. In the final that year against Lindsay Davenport, Serena lost the first set and was locked at 3-3 in the second before collecting the last nine games for the title.

The high drama for Williams continued. Two years ago, she arrived in Melbourne badly overweight and not well prepared. She was ranked No. 81 in the world. During that 2007 event, she knocked off six seeds but lived as dangerously as possible over the fortnight. Nadia Petrova built a 6-1, 5-3 lead over Williams in the third round and served for the match, but Williams survived 1-6, 7-5, 6-3. In the quarterfinals, Shahar Peer served for the match against Serena but Williams fought back for a 3-6, 6-2, 8-6 victory. She then peaked against Sharapova in an immaculate final round display.

This year, the pattern was similar. Once more, she struggled inordinately to find her game. In the round of 16, No. 13 seed Victoria Azarenka took the first set from Serena and was thoroughly in control. But she was not feeling well in the heat and was suffering from dizziness. With Serena leading 4-2 in the second set, Azarenka retired. In the quarterfinals, 2004 U.S. Open champion Svetlana Kuznetsova of Russia had Williams on the ropes. She won the first set and served for the match at 5-4 in the second. At 30-40 in that critical tenth game, Kuznetsova was three points from victory when she bungled a routine forehand volley wide.

Ever opportunistic, Williams won that match 5-7, 7-5, 6-1. To be sure, she was fortunate to get past Azarenka and Kuznetsova. Her match with Kuznetsova started outdoors on a scorching day but was finished with the roof closed, and that was another good break for Williams. Be that as it may, the fundamental truth is that Williams is as fearless a competitor as I have seen. She could never have made so many stupendous comebacks if she did not have an unwavering belief in herself and her chances. Champions are unshakable in the trenches, and there is no better example of that than Serena Williams.

Where does she go from here? I am cautiously optimistic that Serena will celebrate one of her greatest years. She is on a terrific roll at the majors. Last July, Williams was a finalist at Wimbledon. In September, she captured the U.S. Open. Now she has ruled in Melbourne, and she has returned to No. 1 in the world. Williams had not secured two majors in a row since she completed her so-called "Serena Slam" at the 2003 Australian Open. The opportunity is there for Williams to establish herself unequivocally as the best woman player in the world.

She has finally arrived in double digit territory at the majors. Along with her four Australian Opens, Serena has taken the French Open once, Wimbledon twice, and the U.S. Open thrice. But the only year she finished at No. 1 in the world was 2002. She should have ended 2008 at No. 1. She had returned to No. 1 after her U.S. Open victory, but injuries set her back in the autumn and Jelena Jankovic---- despite not winning a major--- stood at the top as the year concluded. Williams closed 2008 at No. 2. There is no good reason why she should not end this year at No. 1, but she will probably need to win at least one more major later this season. She will contend strongly at Wimbledon and might well capture a third crown there on the grass. She will have a decent chance to defend her U.S. Open title.

And yet, Williams remains confounding and enigmatic in many ways. She could be set back again by injuries, or lose interest, or drift into indifference. But maybe she will dedicate herself fully over the next couple of years to making an even larger historical impact. Among the all time great female players, her stock is rising. Margaret Court has won the most majors in singles with 24, followed by Steffi Graf (22), Helen Wills Moody (19), Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova (18 each) and Billie Jean King (12). Serena has now moved past Monica Seles and Maureen Connolly to No. 7 on the all-time list.

That is a substantial accomplishment. And yet, she should be pushing hard to garner three more majors to surpass King. I seriously doubt that she will ever catch Navratilova and Evert, but hope she plays her heart out in the near future and makes the most of her late twenties. My feeling is that she should have reached double digits at the majors long ago, but she is making up now for lost time. With the women's game largely in a muddled state, Serena Williams just might be ready to follow up in a big way after her latest major triumph.

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