Well, she’s done it! The improbable fortnight drew to a close in Melbourne and Serena Williams, unseeded, delivered a majestic shellacking of World’s Number One Maria Sharapova. In the unofficial Battle of the Citruses, Serena (lime) and Maria (lemon) whipped us up a fine little cocktail, probably a bit tarter for the Russian girl than the one from Compton. 6-1, 6-2 sounds pretty tart to me.
It was not a good sign for Maria that her first serve was a double fault. That was the first of six for her. Even though she got to 40-15 in that opening service game, Maria ended up dropping serve. This was especially alarming because reportedly before the match Maria had been out doing a last-minute tuning of her serve, which has not been especially stellar here down under. Her serve has been up and down, mostly it has been down.
The stats on serving revealed the damage: Maria won only 6 of 23 points on second serves for 26%, while Serena earned 10 of 16 for 63%. And even on some of her first serves Maria appeared like a deer in the headlights. Serena was just too on her game and returning too well for Maria to make any headway with her serving game. Serena had 7 aces to 3 for Maria; double faults were 6 to 2. The errors were close, 13 to 11, but the winners showed Serena’s dominance, 28 to only 12 for Maria. When given break chances, Serena munched a bunch, earning 4 of 6 breaks to 0 of 2 for Maria.
I think Maria came out and was intimidated nearly from the get-go. When Maria Sharapova cannot use her biggest weapon, her serve, the night in question will probably stretch for an eternity.
Her other big weapon, her forehand, barely saw the light of day. The problem there was Serena just never let her into anything resembling a rally. If you want to devise a plan for beating Sharapova, this is nearly a perfect way to go: you serve like gangbusters and hope that her serve goes south, which it can. Then you pounce on her serves, first and second, and hammer them for outright winners, never letting her get into a rally. Basically, you smother the poor child. She never got a chance to see the light of day.
Serena spoke in the presser about her ability to hug the baseline, another reason she got the early drop on her opponent. She can step inside the court and take away the angles and pressure her opponent relentlessly from there. Sharapova plays well when she can get momentum going. This time Serena allowed her none at all.
As Serena has shown over the years that when she gets up in a match she is nearly always in control. She is 25-0 in matches when she wins the first set. Her main regret was that she could not bagel Sharapova, especially in the first set when it seemed clear that was what Serena was going for. She probably recalled how Davenport baked a couple of bagels for Maria at Indian Wells in ’05 and figured she should at least try for one herself.
Is it easier to go down to defeat feeling like you’re a seal pup at clubbing time, or would you rather have it come down to a hair’s breath between you? I mean, if you really HAVE to lose a match. Of course Maria would say that either way sucks. She is a woman who does not care to lose to anyone in any fashion, nor is it fun for her to look across the locker room and “see someone else sipping champagne.” She’ll suck it up like a big girl, she’ll hang out with Andy Roddick (rumor has it they have been quietly dating for a year now), they will commiserate with each other. Both will be back.
You kind of wonder what father Yuri had to say to her afterwards. Does she get another drubbing, this time verbally, from Pops? Probably not in this case. Serena was in a zone and Maria was not. There is not much anyone can do for you, Mama did say there would be days like this. That seemed to be Maria’s chief regret: it was her mom’s birthday, and her daughter could not give her the one gift she really wanted to give her.
For a minute there in the latter stages of the match, I thought I detected a tear rolling down Maria’s cheek. I nearly felt sorry for her.
Serena held thoughts of her dead half-sister, Yetunde Price, during the match. We really won’t know all that this family has been through in the last few years, as Serena has said. That’s why I think this win, her third Australian Open title and her 8th Grand Slam, has to be one of her greatest victories. A lot of order was restored to the House of Williams with this one.
For Serena I could not be happier. This was a tremendously satisfying win to experience with her. After all, we’ve experienced everything else with the Williams family. I made fun of her size and her outfits and her huffs and puffs as she covered court in her early matches. The “R” word for retirement was probably hovering around the heads of both the Williams girls, I thought.
Now Serena is already laying plans for the French. As she puts it, there are “some things” she wants to work on, now that she’s got the bit firmly between her teeth again. Is she saving Wimbledon for Venus? I hope so. The other Williams sister is going to want in on this hand, she was the one who helped Serena get back fit enough to enter Melbourne. In their offseason training it was Venus who was really pushing her sister, in spite of her wrist injury. At some point very soon Venus Williams will join her sister and they will feed off each other’s success once again.
With her ranking suddenly now catapulting to number 14 in the world, Serena should feel a lot of incentive to keep improving. There is a great rush of energy when you win a big event; you want to keep building on that. We all have wondered what this means for women’s tennis, to have a former champion suddenly emerge from inactivity to the top of the heap. Is this a good or bad thing? Does this completely demoralize the rest of the field? Probably not in the way that Federer’s dominance poses problems for the men. He really is running away with the field.
But right now in women’s tennis the real estate at the top just opened up again. We have a handful of women who could vie for the top spot at year’s end. It’s up for grabs. Justine Henin will return, in what sort of spirit God only knows after her divorce. Mauresmo is flickering again like a candle in a sudden draft. Sharapova is back to her drawing board and Serena Williams needs more fitness and yet more matches.
Today it’s especially good to be a Yank, but hopefully we can all celebrate the return of one of the game’s real power brokers. This could be a fun year in tennis!