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Steve Flink: Serena Rises to the Occasion

7/4/2009 12:00:00 PM

WIMBLEDON---    From my point of view, Serena Williams set the record straight today in the final of the tournament that matters more than any other in tennis. She was absolutely primed for the occasion, determined to secure the crown for the first time in six years, ready and able to perform close to the peak of her powers. She reminded us all why she is the greatest woman player of her era. She stepped out onto the fabled Centre Court and thoroughly imposed her will. She played the game on her terms, striking the ball with beautifully controlled aggression, competing purposefully, playing the kind of forthright tennis that has carried her so successfully through a storied career.

What I liked most about her 7-6 (3), 6-2 triumph over her sister Venus for her third Wimbledon singles title was the unrelenting consistency of her play, and the calmness of her manner from beginning to end. A year ago, Serena had seemed on course to win this tournament after an excellent fortnight, but she had wanted to win the tournament so badly that she ended up self destructing in many ways. Serena lost on that occasion 7-5, 6-3 to Venus in a high quality contest, but the fact remained that Serena wasted a 4-2 first set lead and became overwrought in a hurry. Venus was first rate in garnering her fifth singles championship, but the larger story of that match was the overly excited, almost frenzied, state of Serena’s mind.

This time around, Serena was visibly more composed and even understated, and that altered mindset did her a world of good. From the outset, this was a big server’s duel, and both women were brutally efficient in that department all across the first set. Serena never earned a break point against Venus, but Venus did have one significant chance. Serena was serving at 3-4, 15-40, in danger of going down a break, on the edge of allowing Venus to not only serve for the set but perhaps take control of the match. Serena was being tested severely by her older sister, and she passed that exam comfortably and competently.

On the first break point at 3-4, 15-40, Serena sliced an excellent second serve into the body that Venus could not answer. At 30-40, Serena was fortunate. She ran around her backhand on a short ball and approached the net off the forehand. Venus had the court wide open for a forehand pass, but it was not as easy as it may have appeared. Under modest pressure, Venus drove the ball long. Having come out of that dark corner, Serena did not look back. She aced Venus wide to the forehand in the deuce court, and sent out another ace down the T in the advantage court to reach 4-4.

Almost inevitably, the two estimable sisters serve their way skillfully into a tie-break. It was in that sequence that Serena Williams released her most inspired and convincing tennis of the entire match. With Venus serving at 1-2 in the tie-break, Serena drove an admirably deep forehand return to the backhand side of Venus. It was too much for Venus to handle, and Serena had the mini-break. Serving at 3-2, Serena took a crosscourt forehand from Venus and changed direction brilliantly, lacing a thundering forehand down the line for a clean winner. Venus then pulled a two-hander wide, and it was 5-2 for Serena.

Looking to crack the tie-break wide open and propel herself inexorably toward the title, Serena did just that. She took utter control of the rally, keeping Venus on the desperate run from start to finish, concluding that point with a flourish, rolling a crosscourt forehand into a wide open space to reach 6-2. Two points later, Serena wrapped up the tie-break with another dazzling stroke, sending a topspin lob off the backhand beyond the reach of her sister for another outright winner. The tie-break belonged to Serena, 7-3, and she never wavered thereafter.

Serena and Venus had clashed 20 times across their careers with the series deadlocked at 10-10, but an unmistakable pattern had emerged. In all but two of those contests, the winner of the first set had gone on to take the match. And so it was again on this occasion. Venus and Serena both held until 2-2 in the second set, but then Serena captured four games in a row to close out the account. Venus sensed that Serena was not going to be denied, and her discomfort surfaced. At 2-3, 30-40, Venus double faulted flagrantly to allow Serena the luxury of a 4-2 lead.

Serena was not about to waste that timely gift. She held at love for 5-2, and produced two aces in that game. And then, despite a minor case of anxiety at the end, she played well enough to get the job done. Serena let three match points slip from her grasp, but on the fourth championship point for the No. 2 seed, Venus netted a two-hander. It was over in 87 minutes, and Serena had ended six long years of frustration and under achievement.

In the end, Serena gave the best serving exhibition I have ever seen from her in the latter stages of a major event. I have long believed her game is sounder across the board than Venus’s. While Venus can serve more potently and explosively, Serena has a much smoother and technically superior motion. Moreover, Serena’s second serve is much better. Finally, her forehand has always been a more solid stroke than her sister’s, although Venus has made significant progress off that side in recent years.

The statistics from this final are entirely telling. Serena released 12 aces, ten more than Venus. Both players connected with a respectable 61% of their first serves, but Serena won an astounding 94% of her first serve points while Venus stood at 70% in that category. Serena took 71% of her second serve points and Venus was 15% less successful in that department. Serena was guilty of only 12 unforced errors, six less than Venus. And so, across the board, Serena outplayed her sister in every facet of the game. It was as simple as that.

The victory was historically potent in many ways. Serena now owns 11 Grand Slam championships, and stands only one away from the revered Billie Jean King on the all time women’s list. She has won 11 of 14 “Big Four” finals, a fact that demonstrates unequivocally that she is one of the best big match players of the modern era. Contrast that record with the Venus Williams numbers. Venus is 7-7 in Grand Slam tournament finals, having lost six of eight major finals against her formidable sister.

A further illustration of that point is the way Serena has distanced herself from everyone else in her time as a competitor with a propensity to handle pressure. In the semifinals of this event, she rallied from match point down to beat No. 4 seed Elena Dementieva. That was the third time in her illustrious career that she has rescued herself from match point down at a Grand Slam event and then gone on to win the tournament. At the 2003 Australian Open, Serena saved two match points and rallied from 1-5 in the final set to beat Kim Clijsters in the semifinals. In the final, she stopped Venus Williams in three sets for the title. Two years later at the same tournament, she erased three match points in a semifinal comeback triumph over Sharapova, and then took that crown over Lindsay Davenport. This time around, she was on the brink against Dementieva but somehow prevailed before securing the title in straight sets over her sister. 

In her post-match press conference, Serena was asked about how it felt to look up at the honor’s board on television and to notice her name on the champion’s list three times. She replied, “Actually, I felt like my name should have been there at least once more [but] at least I got in another one this year.”

That is not an inflated assessment. I disagreed with many authorities who have proclaimed in recent years that Venus Williams is a better grass court player than Serena. I fundamentally dispute that notion. To be sure, Venus still has the edge at Wimbledon over her younger sibling by five titles to three on the hallowed lawns of the All England Club. Unquestionably, Venus has had the superior record at Wimbledon, and she had won the crown three of the past four years. It was in that span that she separated herself from Serena on the scale of accomplishment at the major of all majors.

But let’s examine this issue on another level. Serena has now beaten Venus in three of their four Wimbledon final round, head to head clashes. The simple fact is that Serena for too many years did not have herself in the best possible shape to do her finest work on the British lawns. In 2004, she essentially bluffed her way into the final and then was crushed by a young, exuberant, fearless 17-year-old named Maria Sharapova.

In 2005, not in terribly good shape, she was beaten in an embarrassing third round performance against Jill Craybas. The following year, Serena did not play the tournament as injuries kept her out of action. She made it to the quarterfinals in 2007 before the redoubtable Justine Henin removed her in three sets. And then she bowed out in that final against Venus a year ago. So it had been a long and arduous run of misfortune and ineptitude for Serena at the shrine of the sport. No wonder she looked around today and wondered why she had not won this tournament at least one more time.

In the final analysis--- at least as I saw it--- justice was done. Serena Williams was long overdue to assert her authority at Wimbledon. She has a chance now to drive toward loftier historical territory. There is no reason why she should not claim more majors than King. Serena will not be 28 until late September. If she pushes herself inordinately hard for the next two to three years, if she keeps peaking for the majors as she has done so productively over the last year, if she recognizes that she can continue performing at the highest levels of the game into her early thirties, then Serena Williams could at least come reasonably close to matching Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova, the pair of icons who both collected 18 Grand Slam singles championships.

I don’t expect Serena to catch those two superstars. But it should be her intention to work fervently toward that goal, and to make certain that she fully realizes her potential as she moves toward the conclusion of a golden career. I expect no less from her than that.

Steve Flink is a weekly contributor to tennischannel.com

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