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Steve Flink: Williams Restores Order At Last

11/2/2009 12:00:00 AM

by Steve Flink

With the exception of the upcoming Fed Cup final between the United States and Italy, the women have completed another exhilarating, unpredictable, disjointed and often disappointing  year with the Sony Ericsson Championships—Doha 2009. It was a bizarre week in many ways at Qatar as the eight leading competitors in the world were subjected to conditions that made little sense for the season ending event. Even for these finely conditioned athletes who had prepared well for the last tournament they would play in 2009, almost everyone seemed to be ailing in one way or another, and the intense heat and extreme temperatures in Doha did not help matters.  But order was emphatically restored in the end by Serena Williams, who swept through the week without losing a match, toppling her sister Venus twice in the process, validating her status as the best player in the world by winning the tournament for the second time in her illustrious career.

In one round robin group at Doha, Serena and Venus Williams were joined by the Russians Elena Dementieva and Svetlana Kuznetsova. That group was decidedly stronger than the other, which featured Dinara Safina, Jelena Jankovic, Caroline Wozniacki and Victoria Azarenka. Safina, who was hoping to outperform Serena Williams and thus finish the year at No. 1 in the world, retired at 1-1 in the first set of her only match. Facing Jankovic, she retired with a severe disc injury in her back which conceivably could keep her out of the 2010 Australian Open. Jankovic was healthy all week, recouping from a decisive loss in her opening match against Azarenka, getting a virtual free pass against Safina and then beating Wozniacki for a place in the semifinal lineup.

Despite her extraordinary good fortune, Jankovic, the 2008 world No. 1, deserved to make it into the penultimate round. But Wozniacki was improbably lucky to go that far. She was nursing an injury during the week, and escaped from the brink of defeat to beat Azarenka. She also collapsed with cramps while trying to close out alternate Vera Zvonareva at 5-4 in the final set, but somehow had just enough resources left to win that match 6-0, 6-7, 6-4. But Wozniacki would not have qualified for the semifinals had an injured Azarenka not squandered a 6-4, 5-2 lead against second alternate Agnieszka Radwanska in her last round robin contest.

Down 1-4 in the final set, Azarenka retired against Radwanska, and so Wozniacki found herself almost inexplicably among the final four participants. Still hindered by a leg injury, she lost the first set to Serena Williams 6-4, broke serving in the opening game of the second set, but felt incapable of competing any longer, retiring at that juncture as Serena moved into the championship match without exerting much energy. In the other semifinal, Venus Williams evened her career series against Jankovic at 5-5 in yet another in their series of scintillating encounters that are made to order for fans who are enticed by watching players with contrasting styles.

Much was riding on the outcome of this contest. Jankovic has had a largely abysmal 2009 campaign, but she would have loved to end 2009 on a high note with an appearance in the final of such an elite tournament, which would have carried her into next year with renewed vigor. For Venus, this was an unexpected opportunity. She had lost her opening round robin match against Dementieva, a player she had beaten six consecutive times, a woman who had last beaten Williams at Miami in 2004. In Doha, Williams had won the first set and was ahead 3-1, 0-30 in the second set. She served for the match at 6-5 but connected with only one first serve and was broken at 15. In the ensuing tie-break, Williams rallied from 3-6 to 6-6, and stood two points away from a straight set triumph. But an errant backhand down the line cost her that point, and Venus double faulted at set point down.

Dementieva soared to a 3-6, 7-6 (6), 6-2 victory. The next day, Venus had a match point against Serena before losing that battle in a final set tie-break. She bounced back to beat Kuznetsova in three sets, finishing her round robin work at 1-2. Dementieva and Kuznetsova also were 1-2, but the 29-year-old American made it to the semifinals because she had a better record in sets won and lost at 4-5 while Kuznetsova was 3-4 and Dementieva was 2-5. By losing twice in three sets and winning once in another match that went the distance, Venus did just enough to survive the cut.

Against Jankovic, Venus was hard pressed again to prevail as the Serbian reminded us what makes her such an arresting player when she is in the right frame of mind. Jankovic was picking Williams apart at the outset, taking an early 3-1 lead, keeping Venus at bay with her trademark ball control, driving her two-hander down the line judiciously, breaking down the American’s forehand whenever possible. Williams struck back forcefully to 5-5, but dropped two games in a row to lose the set. Jankovic broke at 5-5 when Venus went for broke off the forehand but missed down the line. Jankovic safely served out the set.

At 2-2 in the second set, Jankovic had Williams in jeopardy as Venus served at 0-40. Venus went on the attack to reach 30-40 and then Jankovic gambled by going for an arduous backhand down the line winner from a relatively deep position. She was off target, and Williams held on for 3-2. At break point in the following game, Williams turned the tables on her adversary, measuring a forehand down the line impeccably to find an open space for a winner. It was 4-2 for the American, who served two convincing love games from there to take the set.

The suspense was not over. Jankovic was returning skillfully, keeping her shots remarkably deep, feeding off the pace Williams was providing for her. Venus, though, was more purposeful and efficient than she had been all week. Jankovic broke for a 2-0 lead in the final set, but ultimately she was done in by the vulnerability of her own first and second serves, which were easy prey for the scorching returns of Williams. Moreover, Jankovic almost advertised her insecurity, double faulting twice to fall behind 0-30 in the third game, losing her serve in that crucial third game.

Jankovic had lost her chance. She was broken again to trail 3-2, broke back, but lost her serve a third consecutive time in the seventh game. Williams held at love for 5-3, and served for the match two games later. Despite serving her ninth and tenth double faults, she recovered from break point down as Jankovic sent a routine two-handed backhand long, and recorded a 5-7, 6-3, 6-4 victory. For the first time since Amelie Mauresmo had done it in 2003, a player had survived two round robin losses and managed to reach the title round. A blatant flaw in the round robin format had once more been exposed; no one losing twice in three round robin contests should be rewarded with a pass to the semifinals.

Nevertheless, after all of the injuries and retirements, after the swift departure of Safina, after so many unfortunate developments, it was not a bad thing that the sisters Williams were meeting in the championship match. Not bad at all. While there were a cluster of gripping and high quality showdowns during the week, none surpassed the Williams-Williams round robin confrontation. Only once before in their rivalry had Serena and Venus played a match as suspenseful as this one. Early in 2008 in Bangalore, both players had match points but Serena was the victor in a final set tie-break.

On this occasion in the round robin at Doha, the scenario was much the same. Serena was not locating her serve well at the outset, and Venus was in command. Twice Venus went up a break; twice, Serena retaliated as Venus smothered her second serve with excessive spin and gave away her advantage. At 5-5 in the first set, Venus was down 15-40 but she worked her way out of that danger zone with cool authority and explosive serving. Big sister held on, and then sealed the set in the following game. Twice, Serena saved set points at 5-6 with aces, but an unwavering Venus broke through on the third.

Serena rolled to a two service break lead in the second set at 5-2, lost two games in a row, but served it out comfortably at 5-4 to reach one set all. Serena charged to a 4-1, 30-15 lead in the final set but lost her serve there when she could have pulled away inexorably. Nonetheless, she served for the match at 5-4, and then surprisingly lost faith in her forehand. Atypically, she was a victim of her own timidity, winning only one point in that tenth game. A revitalized Venus held at love for 6-5, and then became ultra-aggressive on her returns in the twelfth game.

A crackling forehand crosscourt return winner took Venus to match point. Serena missed her first serve, but calmly kicked a reasonably deep second delivery to her sister’s backhand. Venus could not do enough damage with the return, and Serena nailed a backhand down the line. Venus chased it down gamely but Serena was in control, approaching down the line off the forehand, then demolishing a short lob from Venus, taking it on the bounce and walloping her smash into the clear. Serena fought through that game and surged back to 6-6.

In the tie-break, serving at 5-4, Serena won a magnificent 13 stroke exchange by driving a backhand pass down the line for a clean winner at full stretch. At 6-4, she released an ace wide to the forehand to finish with a flourish, winning 5-7, 6-4, 7-6 (4). That was among the finest matches they have ever played against each other, and close observers of the sport hoped they might replicate it when they collided again in the final.

That was not quite possible. Both players were compromised to a large degree physically by then. Serena--- who had worn a thin tape on her thigh throughout the week--- was now heavily bandaged.  Moreover, she was taped on her stomach as a precaution for an abdominal problem, and her left wrist was another issue. Venus was having an ongoing problem with her left knee. Both players seemed inhibited in the early stages, as if they did not know how far they could push themselves after a long and demanding year, after a debilitating week of competition.

Yet they gradually found their bearings and started covering the court with more and more alacrity. From the middle of the first set on, this was a first class confrontation. But the key from the beginning was Serena’s serve. She was destroying Venus with her wide slice to the forehand in the deuce court, going out wide creatively in the ad court, finding the corners with astounding regularity. She suffered no lapses, gave no ground, offered no hope to Venus. In the opening set, Serena won 16 of 20 points on serve; in the second set, she took 29 of 32 points on her delivery. She never faced a break point, and was not even extended to deuce. It ranks right up there among her most effective serving performances of her career. Her first serve was more strategically placed and had more variety than that of her sister. In turn, Serena’s second serve was fundamentally better than Venus’s, kicking higher and deeper, biting into the court tremendously.

In the first set, Serena broke her sister for 2-1 with a penetrating forehand down the line that Venus could not handle, and added another break at 4-2 with a series of blistering returns followed by a double fault at break point from Venus. Serena closed that set out confidently, 6-2. In the second set, the intensity level went up substantially on both sides of the net, and Venus had the benefit of serving first. The rallies were played at an exhilarating pace and were more ferocious. Venus matched Serena service game for service game (as neither player was broken), leading all the way up to an inevitable tie-break.

In that sequence, Serena was too good. She built a commanding 5-1 lead, but overanxiously lost three points in a row. With Serena serving at 5-4, the tension was palpable on both sides of the net. Serena paused, picked her spot, and aced Venus down the T. 6-4, double match point. Moments later, it was over as Serena sent a crosscourt forehand well out of Venus’s reach. For the fourth time in a row, and the thirteenth time in 23 career skirmishes against her older sister, Serena Williams was victorious. She has reaffirmed for one and all that when she is at her zenith, no woman in the world can stop her on any surface other than clay.

Most importantly, Serena Williams had demonstrated that she could indeed perform majestically at settings other than Grand Slam events. Her last three tournament triumphs had all been recorded in majors—at the 2008 U.S. Open, and 2009 Australian Open and Wimbledon. She had not won any other Sony Ericsson WTA Tour events since her 2008 victory at the Family Circle Cup in Charleston, South Carolina. For that reason alone, she had not been able to consistently hold on to her No. 1 ranking.

Those days may be over now. I have a feeling that Williams will display more consistency across the board over the next few years, which will be a necessity, particularly with former world No. 1 Justine Henin coming back in 2010. Henin will challenge Serena Williams across the board for supremacy in the women’s game next year; of that, I have no doubt. But at the 2009 Sony Ericsson WTA Tour Championships in Doha, Serena Williams accounted for her formidable sister twice, upended Elena Dementieva (a player who had twice toppled her during the year), and saved two set points in the opening set of a 7-6, 6-4 win over Kuznetsova, the woman who ushered her out of the 2009 French Open en route to taking the title.

She beat some of her biggest rivals, and did so convincingly. The stage is set for another banner year for Serena Williams, but meanwhile she can reflect proudly on what turned out to be an excellent 2009 campaign, and know that she ended the year as brightly as she possibly could.

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