Back when I was a feral youth I had occasion to thumb my way through Israel, arriving at a southern kibbutz where I promptly headed for the showers. To my great astonishment, an Israeli girl my age got into my very small shower with me. Now, there were about fifty other fine showers in the immediate vicinity, but she happened to pick mine. God, something interesting to write home about, I thought. My first lesbian experience. Or something like that. No such thing happened, she was probably just being a good water-saving citizen. But her aggressiveness really threw me.
I happened to recall this episode yesterday when I saw Shahar Peer push Serena Williams all over the court in the first set of their quarterfinal encounter. Basically the Israeli came out and got in Serena’s face in a major way. Serena probably thought, like I did, “What the hell is going on?”
This was not the same 6-1 drubbing Serena got from Nadia Petrova in the first set of their encounter in the third round. This set went 6-3, but I was more worried here about Serena than against Petrova. We know Petrova can go the way of the Big Chokes. Shahar Peer sends out the message, very strongly, that she’s not a choker; you have to beat this babe, she won’t do it herself. I saw her play for the first time last summer when she beat Dementieva in the fourth round at Roland Garros. Her game had heft and her personality had the fire and strength of a future Top Tenner for sure.
This is one tough cookie. We can safely say that Peer has a level of experience that the other women on the tour don’t have: she’s been in the Israeli army. Maybe I am overly impressed by this fact, but this girl can kick ass. Serena unfortunately has a lot of ass to kick. We have made fun of her rather mercilessly here of late, but Serena is getting the last laugh on all of us. Peer made a good leap at the throat of Serena in this match and, particularly in the first set, she showed us a powerful repertoire of shots.
After losing the first set to the steady, deep shot-making of Peer, Williams got herself in gear a bit and took the second, 6-2. But even with that comeback you were holding your breath for her chances. Shahar was not going to be a bagel in the third set, as is often the case with the big women stars who play lesser female players. How often have we seen one of them fight a set off of a name player, only to see that player come back and punish her severely in the third? This is where bagels get baked. Peer was not going to be in this league. And to her credit, Serena realized she was going to have to dig very deep to beat her.
Let’s pick up the action in the third set, the set where Mary Carillo said we’ll see “who stands up and for how long.” It looked like Serena was on her way, finally, when after four deuce points she finally broke Peer for a 3-1 lead. She consolidated the break serving for 4-1. But Peer broke back to make it 4-3, then fought off Serena to hold for 4-4.
Peer swings a good two-handed backhand and she has a booming forehand. She may want to build up more power on her serve though. Right now it has a big roundhouse motion but not a lot of power coming into the ball. It reminds me a bit of that other loopy server, Patty Schnyder.
Serena Williams however still has a great serve, it has helped her through her earlier matches here, and this was about the time she figured she had better use it. At 4-4 with two break points against her, Serena uncorked an ace for 30-40, then did it again for deuce. She wriggled her way free of that game with yet a third ace and it was now ahead 5-4 with Peer to serve.
Serena had a total of 11 aces, Peer had none. The serve may have separated the two players in the end. As Serena’s serving got better, Peer had trouble getting her first serve in, and Williams was enjoying a bit of a munch fest on the second one. Peer struggled to hold for 5-5 thanks to a few more errant forehands from Serena.
Crunch time came with Williams serving to go up 6-5. She knocked another forehand wide for love-15. But there was nothing wrong with her backhand, which she used beautifully to pick up a ball from a low angle and hit cross court for a winner to get to 15-15. A moment later at 30-30, Serena knocked another forehand into the net and she was down a break point. Her serve helped her out. A good rocket serve out wide to Peer’s backhand set up an easy swing volley that Williams knocked off for deuce. But she missed her first serve and Peer hit the second for a clean forehand winner up the line for a break point. Williams then uncorked a daring second serve up the line to Peer’s forehand, but Peer handled the return well and Williams smacked ANOTHER forehand wide. A break for the Israeli, and a chance to close the deal at 6-5.
This was where Peer needed a bit more experience under her belt; Williams has been living in these moments for a long time now. She knows the drill. Peer missed a couple of first serves and Serena made hay with the second. At 30-30, Peer hit a forehand wide, then on the long rally for the next point another forehand went into the net and Serena had broken back for 6-6.
The Australian Open, like Wimbledon, does not have a tiebreak in the closing set, so whoever wins by two games takes it all. Serena could smell the goodies now, and to celebrate she started off with a 122mph ace for 15-0, then aggressively moved into net on a short forehand from Peer and put the point away with a winning backhand. She went up 40-0 with another ace, then got the break when Peer netted another easy forehand.
Trailing 7-6, Peer served, and Williams unleashed a good forehand return of serve for a winner, 0-15. Following a fierce rally, Peer came back with her own great forehand up the line for 15-15. Williams netted a backhand for 30-15, but then Peer went into Williams’ forehand and Serena put it away for 30-30. Peer decided to come into net but overhit a backhand volley, match point against her. After another intense rally the Israeli pushed a forehand long and Serena was the one leaping for joy.
Whew! Is it great to have her back or what? I know my co-writer thinks Serena will have little motivation to get fitter if she does advance further into this tournament, but I disagree. I think the joy of getting through these tough rounds is going to translate into Serena Williams heading back to the gym and riding that emotion to a new fitness level. I think she will want to celebrate her good fortune, her sudden resurrection, which now only she can make permanent. She will become a grunt again. She must become a grunt again.
Supported by a small but vocal group of supporters, Peer played peerlessly for the first set, then was able to turn around her lack of consistently good play in the second and make her way back in the third to the doorstep of victory. The fact that she could not close the deal just means she does not yet have enough experience in really big moments. That will change. But how she got to this really big moment is a matter all of her own doing. She should take away as much from this match as Andy Murray will out of his encounter with Nadal.