Serena Must Adapt To Get Back To Top
Serena must adapt to get back on top
FOXSports.com, Updated 5 hours ago
Give credit to Serena Williams for going all out this fall to regain her once-dominant posture, but it's clear after her last three tournaments that she's nowhere near the player who stunned the world by winning her eighth Grand Slam title at the 2007 Australian Open.
Williams has not won a tournament since March, when she came back from match-point down to work over top-ranked Justine Henin in the Miami final. The Belgian got payback, knocking her out in three successive Grand Slam quarters — the French Open, Wimbledon and U.S. Open.
Realizing after the loss in New York to Henin that she needed to hone her stroke, Williams landed in Europe earlier this month. In Stuttgart, she was pounded by Svetlana Kuznetsova. In Moscow, Serena looked a whole lot more confident when she stomped the Russian in Kuznetsova's home country.
But in the final Serena suffered her first loss to another Russian, the relentless Elena Dementieva, in a shocking 5-7, 6-1, 6-1 defeat. Then on Tuesday in Zurich, Serena retired with a groin injury down 6-0, 3-0 to Patty Schnyder on the day it was announced that she had qualified for the Sony Ericsson WTA Championships in Madrid.
Tour officials say she'll be good to go when the WTA Championships begin in two weeks, but no one really knows what kind of mental or physical shape Serena will be in until she steps on court.
"I'm not sure she has the hunger that she's had, and it's pretty clear she's not as confident as she was," said Katrina Adams, who called the Moscow tournament for the Tennis Channel last week. "Her groundstrokes aren't as clean as they were. Her first serve is on and off. Plus, players don't fear her anymore. Now they fear Justine."
It's been nearly five years since Williams completed her "Serena Slam," winning the 2002 French Open, Wimbledon, U.S. Open and 2003 Australian Open, all final-round victories over her older and once-dominant sister Venus. Since that time, Serena has shown flashes of brilliance, but has not been able to put together another terrifying reign, as she has been saddled by significant injuries, personal tragedy, and an on-and-off commitment to practicing and competing.
But at the outset of this year, things looked different. Serena spent the off-season getting in shape, hitting a ton of balls, and arrived in Australia at the turn of the New Year. She lost a tough three-setter to the competent Austrian, Sybille Bammer, in Hobart, and was so pumped up to improve that she disappeared the rest of the day, running wind sprints at a hidden park.
She didn't look great when she showed up in Melbourne, but the fire was there and she gutted out match after match until her ethereal form came in the final, when she crushed Maria Sharapova. She then spoke of having a shot at winning the calendar year Grand Slam, and who was to doubt her, especially two months later in Miami when Serena looked like she had a good deal more self belief and willpower than Henin.
But all that changed at the French Open, when Henin was able to yank her around on clay. It got worse at Wimbledon, when Serena sprained her thumb and the Belgian buried her. Due to her battered thumb, Williams was unable to compete until the U.S. Open and it showed in her loss to Henin, as she couldn't contend with the Belgian's perfect mix of precision and power.
"She had lost her confidence and form by then and she hasn't gotten it back yet," Adams said. "When she's dominating, she's hitting aces, service winners, return winners — she's the one who is dictating. But now the players feel they can get into matches against her and stay with her off the ground. She's not as fast as she was, either."
Adams believes Serena is capable of getting back to the top level, but wants to see her put in the work. She's encouraged by Serena's decision to play this fall and that Williams is putting herself out there, warts and all. It's not easy for an eight-time Grand Slam champion to go seven months without a title, but at age 26, Serena has entered a new stage of her career. Without the body of a fleet, healthy teenager, she won't be able to waltz her way through matches.
Now she's going to have to do what other legends did in their second stage as elite players — add variety, accept the up and downs and work harder. That's what all-time greats Steffi Graf, Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert did, and it worked for them. Now Serena is going to have to do much the same, or she's not going to realize her goal of going well into the double digits of Slam titles.
She can ignite the process in Madrid, where Henin will be waiting to cap off her glorious year with another high-level title. But if Serena can score a win over the Belgian there, when she returns to defend her Australian title in 2008 she may have leveled the playing field.
"She really needs a win over Justine, just to show her that she's still there and can play with her," Adams said. "She might not have enough time to get her game together by then, but she's capable if she starts trusting herself again. If you look at where Serena started the year, ranked No. 94, and realize that she's pushed her ranking up to No. 6, a lot of players would consider that a great year. But not Serena — she wants to be No. 1 again. But it's going to take a big commitment to get there."