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Steve Flink: Serena on a Mission

7/3/2010 3:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

WIMBLEDON--- The greatest players in the game of tennis get only four chances every year to step out onto the Grand Slam stages and make history of the highest order. They always strive to peak at the majors, to plan their schedules and build their reputations around these showcase events, to make certain that they give themselves the best chances to succeed on these landmark occasions. From my standpoint, it is inspiring to watch towering competitors when they are fully motivated and most highly charged, as they sweep through history with no larger goal in mind than raising their historical stock among the best players of all time, when they are close to the peak of their powers.

That is exactly the way Serena Williams sees herself right now; it is precisely how she is going about her business. Serena will be 29 on September 26, and that should be a time when a player of her stature is slowly or perhaps even sharply declining. But the way I look at it, Serena might well be playing the finest tennis of her illustrious career. She has never been more determined or goal oriented. She goes after each and every major unhesitatingly. She seems to take all of her matches seriously. From the beginning to the end of this Wimbledon, the mindset of Serena Williams was evident to us all: she came here to win, and no one was going to deny her what she coveted.

Williams captured her 13th career major title today with an emphatic 6-3, 6-2 triumph over No. 21 seed Vera Zvonareva in the championship match. Serena thoroughly outclassed her 25-year-old Russian adversary, winning as commandingly as most of the game’s cognoscenti had anticipated she would. Williams did not lose her serve, never even faced a break point, connected with 66% of her first serves, and released nine aces. Zvonareva was appearing in her first Grand Slam tournament final, and was surely keenly aware of what she was up against in facing the world No. 1 on the fabled Centre Court. But I did not have the feeling that Zvonareva was in awe of Serena or the occasion; she was simply outplayed by a ferocious grass court player with an unwavering will to win.

Zvonareva stayed with Williams as long as she could, holding her ground until the middle of the opening set. Serena started by not missing a first serve in a love game, but Zvonareva answered by holding for 1-1 with some impressive play from the backcourt. Serena had a tough time holding serve in the third game, double faulting into the net to trail 15-30, following with an ace down the T for 30-30, then advancing to 40-30 with a sharply angled forehand crosscourt winner, one of her most underrated shots. Zvonareva then made an effective return off a second serve, and Williams was off the mark in her reply, driving a backhand wide down the line. It was deuce. But Serena swiftly reasserted herself, taking the next point, and closing out the game with an ace for 2-1.

Still, Zvonareva was not unduly shaken. She served an ace for 30-0 in the following game, and held at 15 for 2-2. Serena held at 30 for 3-2, and then applied the pressure in the sixth game, looking to break the set and the match wide open. With Zvonareva having significant problems on the high forehand, Serena made it to 30-40, earning her first break point of the match.

Zvonareva deserves full marks for her response there. She took full advantage of a short return from Williams and ripped a forehand crosscourt that Serena could not answer. Zvonareva then aced Serena down the T, and held for 3-3 on an errant backhand return in the net from the top seed. A chance for Serena had evaporated, but she remained calm and purposeful. In the seventh game, Williams--- helped by two more aces-- held at 15. She also raised her level of aggression decidedly, closing out that game with a patented backhand drive volley after following her serve in, provoking a backhand passing shot wide from a hurried Zvonareva.

Now Serena went right to work. After Zvonareva reached 40-15 at 3-4, Williams blasted a flat backhand crosscourt that was too much for the Russian. Perhaps shaken by that point, Zvonareva double faulted for deuce. Williams moved to break point, only to miss a backhand return. Good fortune came Serena’s way on the next point as her return clipped the net cord and drew Zvonareva in. Williams adroitly rolled a topspin lob crosscourt that was unanswerable. Back to break point again, Serena raced to her right to chase down a volley from Zvonareva, and curled a forehand passing shot down the line for a clean winner.

Williams had the break for 5-3, and she pumped her fists in exultation, knowing she was on her way to victory. Briefly in the following game, she stumbled, double faulting at 40-15, driving a two-hander long for an unforced error. It was deuce, but Serena quickly righted her ship. After swinging her slice serve wide to Zvonareva’s forehand in the deuce court, Williams ventured forward when she realized the Russian was lobbing back the return. Confidently, Serena put away her overhead down the line to reach set point, and then she sealed the set as Zvonareva missed a forehand down the line.

The signs were abundantly clear that Williams was on her way inexorably to a fourth Wimbledon singles title. Serena broke for 1-0 in the second set as Zvonareva missed yet another forehand off a short ball. Williams lost only one point in holding for 2-0, concluding that game with an impressive backhand volley down the line winner. Zvonareva held on for 1-2--- ending a five game losing streak--- but Serena was in her front runner’s frame of mind, unrelenting and on song. In the fourth game, she opened with an ace down the T, got to 30-15 with a sliced serve wide in the deuce court, and won that game at 15 with a commanding forehand swing volley winner down the line.

With a 3-1 lead and a vision of the finish line, Williams pressed hard for an insurance break in the fifth game. Zvonareva gamely rallied from 15-40 to reach game point, only to net a two-hander crosscourt. At deuce, Williams took control of the rally, drove her backhand down the line, and provoked Zvonareva into an error off the forehand. Now down break point again, Zvonareva clearly felt burdened. She double faulted long to make it 4-1 for Serena, and knew there would be no way for her to recover from that juncture. Serena held at 15 for 5-1. At 5-2, serving for the match, she closed out the account in style. Williams started with an ace down the T at 122 MPH, then reached 30-0 with a 77 MPH heavy kicking second serve to the Russian’s two-hander. Reaching up exceedingly high to make contact, Zvonareva was rendered helpless, pushing her return wide. Then Williams produced another impeccable slice serve wide in the deuce court to set up an overhead winner and make it triple match point, and she finished it off with another overhead into the clear, holding at love with no inhibition at all.

Although Williams clearly had a favorable draw (Li Na was the only top ten seed she faced), it was nonetheless a fulfilling tournament for Williams in many ways, who was so primed for this event that it would not have mattered whom she confronted; it was her tournament to win. The absolute key to her triumph was in the serving department. In seven matches, she served no fewer than 89 aces, a record no other woman has matched. On top of that, she won 61 of 64 service games, suffering only three service breaks against her in all of her matches. In all my years of watching Serena, I have never seen her serve with such consistent excellence. Her location was uncanny in both the Deuce and Ad courts, and given the average velocity of her first and second deliveries (109 MPH for the first serve, 91 MPH for the second) it is a testament to the fluidity of her motion and the reliability of her ball toss that she made good on 68% of her first serves for the tournament, and captured 88% of her first serve points. No wonder Martina Navratilova said after the match that Williams is the best server in the history of women’s tennis; is anyone prepared to dispute that point?

In any case, this was an immensely important victory for the American. By capturing her fourth Wimbledon, she raised her total of victories at the majors to 13, moving past Billie Jean King to sixth place on the all time list. Only Margaret Court (24), Steffi Graf (22), Helen Wills Moody (19), and Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova (tied at 18) have secured more Grand Slam singles championships. I can’t see how Williams will ever equal or surpass Graf, but she does have a chance now to close in on the estimable Evert and Navratilova. That is true for a number of reasons. Not only is Serena playing the best brand of tennis in her remarkable career, but the women’s game in the upper levels is in disarray. Venus Williams--- the No. 2 seed at Wimbledon--- fell in the quarterfinals. Most of the other top players --including Jelena Jankovic, Caroline Wozniacki, and Samantha Stosur--- are performing unevenly, as is U.S. Open champion Kim Clijsters, who fell against Zvonareva in the quarterfinals here at Wimbledon.

Meanwhile, Justine Henin, runner-up to Williams at the Australian Open, fell and hurt her elbow badly in a round of 16 Wimbledon loss to Clijsters, and she will be out through the U.S. Open. So Williams has a huge opportunity to pick up more majors in the next few years. Since taking the 2008 U.S. Open, Serena has won five of the last eight Grand Slam championships. I don’t know if she can sustain that pace over the next eight majors, but she should win at least three more in that span. In my view, she will end her career with no less than 16 Grand Slam titles in her collection. There is no better big match player in the women’s game, no woman who can play better under duress, no female champion who competes with deeper intensity. This was her 13th victory in 16 career Grand Slam finals, and only Venus Williams (at the 2001 U.S. Open and 2002 Wimbledon) and Maria Sharapova (2004 Wimbledon) have toppled Serena in “Big Four” finals. Moreover, Serena managed to get through an entire major for the fourth time without losing a set, replicating a feat she realized at Wimbledon in 2002, the U.S. Open in 2002 and the U.S. Open in 2008.

Her career has stretched long and wide, far and deep. Williams won her first major back at the U.S. Open in 1999, and so she joins Martina Navratilova (1970’s, 1980’s and 1990’s) as the only women champions to win Grand Slam singles events in three decades. Her recent resurgence is the most impressive part of her resume. In 2002-2003, Williams won four majors in a row for a so-called “Serena Slam”, and also was victorious in five out of six Grand Slam tournaments in that stretch, ending that magnificent run at Wimbledon in 2003. At that stage, she had taken only six majors. From 2004-2007, she added only two more, both at the Australian Open (2005 and 2007). She was not giving the game her full commitment; it was as simple as that. That was a shame.

Nowadays, she has her priorities in line, and that is why she must be admired so thoroughly for what she is doing. I hope she goes full force for three more years, throws her heart and soul into exploiting every opening she has, and keeps demanding as much as she possibly can of herself. If she can do that, if she pushes on into her early thirties with the purposefulness and depth of ambition she is displaying now, if she realizes that the next few years could be the most precious of her career, Serena Williams will take her rightful place among the elite as one of the very best ever to play this game.

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