Serena defended her title in Miami after more than a few anxious moments.
Here in the U.S., everyone and their mother is obsessed with the final four this weekend. It’s the final event of the annual rite known as March Madness – the college basketball championships. To kick off the weekend, we had the women’s championships of the Sony Ericsson Open in Miami. Indian Wells and Miami have trouble getting U.S. television coverage because they have to fight for air time with March Madness. European coverage uses the U.S. feed so it’s a bad thing all round.
It’s unfortunate because all those people are missing out on seeing Serena Williams let go with a primal scream that is unmatched in the world of sports. Forget about button up college basketball coaches who never say anything that isn’t politically correct and young basketball players who seldom come up with anything beyond a variation on “We’re just worried about the next game.” How boring is that?
Give me the Queen of Mean and I mean that in the best possible way. When Serena is prowling the court, she is unbeatable. She let out more than one of those shattering primal screams while pummeling Justine Henin in the quarterfinal this week, 6-2, 6-0. Why is it, then, that her opponent in the Miami final, Jelena Jankovic, has a winning record of 3-2 over Serena coming into the match? The answer: Because she outlasts Serena and she almost did it again today.
You always hear about Jelena holding beating back multiple match points and playing heroic, come from behind matches. She did it at the Australian Open on more than one occasion and she did it here against Sofie Arvidsson. She came back from 1-5 in the third set to get to the tiebreaker then survived five match points in the tiebreaker to beat Arvidsson in the second round. It is heroic but she wouldn’t need to be so heroic if she improved her serve. There’s no need to fight back from 1-5 if you hold your serve now and then.
The scene was set for yet another heroic win as Serena broke Jelena quickly and often. She broke her twice in the first set to win it 6-1 then broke her again in her first two service games in the second set.
There’s another reason Jelena suffers through those long matches: she plays too defensively. But when she plays against Serena she has no choice, she has to be aggressive else the match is over quickly. Jelena hit an inside out backhand on the line with Serena serving at 3-0 in the second set and Serena threw in a few errors to go down a break. Finally, Jelena was starting to crawl back into the match.
She came up with an inside out forehand on the line in the next game and things were looking up even more. She faced more break points but she held on. Jelena has started working with a conditioning and strength coach to improve her strength but I have to say, I don’t quite understand the thing about needing more strength to serve better. Of course it takes strength and she is almost 5ft10in (177cm) while only weighing 130lb (59kg), but one of the keys to a strong serve is wrist snap. At that height, she should be able to get some snap on the ball instead of just rolling the ball in as she currently does. And she’s got plenty of flexibility which is also a key to serving well. All match long you see her drop into the splits and it’s not those painful splits you used to see in Kim Clijsters’ games, Jelena does it effortlessly.
And if Jelena doesn’t have a strong serve, then she should put some twist and turn on it like Rafael Nadal does. Come to think of it, she may be having the same problem Rafa has: he’s a switch hitter. Rafa is naturally right-handed and plays left-handed and it makes his serve a bit awkward. Jelena is naturally left-handed but she plays right-handed.
I don’t really understand why players do the switch hitting thing, do you? I suppose it’s because some young kids feel more comfortable hitting a tennis ball with their offhand but kids also don’t do a lot of serving. Has anyone ever served with one hand and hit a one-handed forehand with the other? I suppose not because the player would have to slip the serving hand up the racket at the end of the serve to let the offhand take over on the forehand side. All the more reason I’d discourage a young player from switch hitting.
Jelena was still down a break when Serena served for the second set at 5-4 and self-destructed. She hit a double fault and put some balls into the net to lose her serve at love. In the next game, Serena couldn’t convert three break points then lost her serve and the set, 7-5. She kept hitting balls into the net and she was huffing and puffing a bit. Was she tired? This was only her third tournament of the year after all.
If so, Jelena was in even worse shape. After losing her serve at the beginning of the third set, she called for the trainer. She’d been suffering with an upper respiratory infection because she hasn’t seen a tournament she doesn’t like yet and therefore wears herself out by playing too much.
Serena recovered her serve and her movement while Jelena did not and that translated into a 5-0 lead for Serena in the third set. And that’s where we found ourselves when Jelena kicked in her usual script. Serena was serving for the match at 5-0 when Jelena started moving her around the court. Jelena couldn’t convert two breaks points and Serena had her first match point – or should I say that Jelena fought off the first of what would be many break points.
Jelena smashed a backhand return winner down the line and started whacking the ball on every point. Unbelievably, she fought off four more match points to get to 3-5. She didn’t fight them off as much as Serena gave them to her. Serena got the dreaded recreational player disease know as finishing too soon – she wanted the match to be over before it was over and it took her out of her rhythm. She hit numerous balls long as if pummeling the ball would somehow end the match sooner.
This is how she put it after the match:
Well, at that point, more or less it’s me just like feeling like I’m almost there. Or, God, I would hate to lose this match after being up so much. I think that’s more of the emotion. Like, How am I going to sleep tonight? “How many Ambien do I have in case I lose this match” type of situation?
Jelena fought off two more match points serving at 3-5 before, finally, on Serena’s eighth match point, it was all over. The script took an alternative ending for Jelena this time.
Believe it or not, Serena actually drops from number 8 to number 10 after winning this title. It sounds completely ridiculous but it’s actually straightforward. Serena won this tournament last year and she needed to win it again to keep from losing points. She didn’t lose points but others players below her gained points by improving their results over last year and so they jumped past her.
By my count, this is the first time since 2004 that Serena has defended a title and that was Miami too. She did win two Tier I titles last year, though, so she’s making her way back into a consistently respectable form and that is a nice ending too.