Peter Bodo On The Women's Final
Erasing the Asterisk
Hi, everyone. Like many of you, I'm still in suffering from Wimbledon hangover (for a look at one tangential aspect of this condition, click here). And I still have some unfinished Wimbledon business in my notebook. Some of it may be hopelessly dated, but one item is very relevant to the coming months - with the Olympic Games and U.S. Open not that far down the pike. And that's the subject of Venus Williams.
A few of the usual press suspects, including me, had a chance to sit down with Venus shortly before the men's final for a substantial conversation on topics including her win over her kid sister Serena in the women's final. When our interview was over and everyone filed out, I had one of those naturally occurring moments when I was face-to-face with Venus and she wasn't looking elsewhere or otherwise engaged. I congratulated her on the final, and told her that the match represented the highest level of women's I'd ever seen in some thirty-odd years covering the pro tour. She spontaneously lit up and said: Really?
"Really," I replied. "Nobody - not Steffi, not Martina, not Billie Jean King ever played at so high a level as well as I remember against an equally dangerous opponent."
Venus looked pleased, and here I have to paraphrase because the tape recorder was off by then:
The funny thing about that was that because it was Serena, we both had a kind of feel for what the other person would do. So it was - it was like, a little bit weird, because I knew where she was going to go with the ball, and she knew what I was going to try to do, so both of us had to do something else. . . it was kind of strange, and that's why some of the points developed in kind of a funny way, you know, like no rallies, or both of us more or less being in the same place at the same time.
This rang true, because it rephrased in somewhat more abstract form something she had said in the mass press conference right after her epic win (a triumph that secured Venus's fifth title, and her undisputed place among the greatest Wimbledon champions of all time). Let me lift the passage from the post I wrote right after that match:
You know, uhm, I think the level of play was really high. I think a lot of the times one of us was overpowering the other . So I hit a hard ball on the line, she can't get it back. Or, you know, I tried to go for too much because I'm anticipating that she's gonna run my shot down. Or I hit a huge serve, she hits one I can't return.
So in between us overpowering each other we had, I think, some really competitive rallies and intense points, you know, where one player would come back and take the point, when it looked like the other player was gonna win.So, you know, we're both very powerful, and I think it showed out there.
The key word here, folks, is "overpowering." And for those of you who took issue with my contention that this was the highest level of women's tennis I've ever witnessed (what, you wanted a proverbial "great match" too?), I can only say that "overpowering" is not a word generally associated with WTA tennis. Artful? Sure. Graceful? Sure. Impressive? Yeah, that too. Overpowering? Rarely - at least not in the strictest sense of that word. The word draws its meaning from the root word "power" (apologies to Mr. Webster if this somehow runs counter to his definition). I understand that many of you don't necessarily worship at that altar, and that's fine. But ignore it at your peril.
Right after the final, I almost wrote what I still think was my most noteworthy observation about the match. But I avoided it, partly out of concern the way it might be taken as a slight when it wasn't intended as one. Now, I'll come clean. When I watch a women's match, there's usually a small asterisk somewhere in the back of my mind, and no matter how enjoyable or riveting the match, that asterisk demands that I add the phrase, . . . for women's tennis. That is, I might think, "That's a great backhand. . . for women's tennis. Or, this is great stuff. . . for women's tennis. But watching as well as reflecting on the Wimbledon final later, the asterisk was conspicuous in absence. For once, I didn't have to shove it into a back corner of my mind.
Maybe I'm just confessing some deep-rooted and indefensible prejudice - I'm entirely open to that idea. But my policy, developed many years ago, was to see WTA and ATP tennis through a different set of eyes, embracing different standards of measurement. This was especially true in the service department, where you could just throw the First Commandment of Tennis (Thou Shalt Hold Serve) right out the window, and not read too much into the breakfests that often masqueraded as matches - that was the point, in fact: they weren't masquerading as anything. They were part of the women's tennis deal.
The women's game overwhelmingly tended to turn on how well the players handled the Second Commandment (Thou Shalt Play Consistently), and whether or not they managed to play with sufficient aggression - especially when they were back on their heels. It's hard, though, to draw up a specific set of criteria for all women's matches - it's always been more like looking at each match as a unique organism in which the Commandments did not always apply, or apply as forcefully and comparably.
For that reason, a serve statistic unearthed via my correspondence with Tribe member who challenged my analysis of the match might be telling: Serena Williams fastest serve was 121 mph, her average first serve clocked 109, and her average second serve was 87 mph. Venus's fastest serve was a 127 thunderbolt, she averaged 111 on her first serve, and hit her second at an average of 92.
Now let's dare compare that to the men. In the final, Roger Federer's fastest serve was 129, and he averaged 117 on his first deliveries. His average second-serve traveled at 100 mph. That was slightly better than Rafael Nadal (who, in case you hadn't heard, won that match), whose fastest first serve was 120, while his first-serve average was 112 and his average second clocked 93. The takeaway: Venus Williams topped Nadal by a whopping 7 mph in the "fastest" department, and she trailed him by a single mile per hour in the other two critical averages. Granted, Nadal is a spinmeister, which costs him mph numbers. Still, the statistics are a tribute to Venus - and they set a new benchmark for the women's game. To borrow a phrase from Barack Obama (who appears to have stolen it from that other great statesman, Bob the Builder): Yes, we can!
Regular readers of this blog know how much stock I put in the serve in the men's game; I've frequently bemoaned the slowing of the surfaces, with the attendant de-emphasis on the serve. As I've written before, the serve should be worth more (and still is worth more, which is something you'll discover if you peel the onion); after all, the entire scoring format is based on the assumption that it's a significant advantage to be serving - to start a point with the only shot entirely at your command, the only shot that doesn't require an adjustment to a previous shot, and the only shot that you unconditionally put where you want. So the serving prowess of the Williams sisters is a critical step in eliminating one of the key elements that encourages us to view women's tennis through a different lens. It sounds too highfalutin' to put it this way, perhaps, but the Sisters have introduced real gender-equality to tennis in terms of pure athletics.
This is no mean feat, and looking at some of the other Hall of Fame women players underscores the point. Chris Evert won despite her serve, rather than because of it. The only thing that separated her from the women ranked well below her (or, for that matter, Shahar Peer or Jelena Jankovic) was her extraordinary nerve. Evert may have struggled to break 100, but more to the point she found a way to put her 80 mph second serve into the corner, or along the sideline, to keep her window of vulnerability small. That she was able to do this at the most critical of times, against the best of opponents, demonstrated that you can serve well without having or making a lot of power; in fact, some of the best servers of Evert's era (Betty Stove and Hana Mandlikova come to mind) had outstanding serves - except, sometimes, when it really counted. But Evert wouldn't last out there today.
For Evonne Goolagong the serve was nothing less than an adventure, and it helps explain why she didn't collect more Grand Slam titles. For someone as loose-limbed, smooth, and artful, Goolagong's serve was almost painful to behold. She often got tight, but somehow avoided becoming the Elena Dementieva of her era through sheer guts - you could feel with every serve, especially second serve, the battle between fear and determination playing out in her mind, traveling through her arm, expending what power it carried at just about the time the strings touched the ball - leaving little force behind the shot.
Steffi Graf certainly got the job done, but she tossed the ball straight up and went after it, without ever getting enough forward (rather than upward) momentum to get maximum weight and spin behind the shot. Working almost exclusively with the arm, Steffi produced crisp, rifle-shot like serves when she was on, but they were the shots fired by a rimfire rifle, not a cannon.
And what of Martina Navartilova, the creative, lefty, aggressive player who took serve-and-volley tennis to new heights in the women's game? She made the most of a serve that, given her player profile, was not in the same league as her volley, backhand, or athleticism. She was rarely able to exploit her left-handedness in the way some many of her male counterparts did. John McEnroe, he of the wicked "can opener" lefty slice, is the outstanding example. But Goran Ivanisevic did enormous damage with his serve, and so did Roscoe Tanner. The bottom line is none of the standout women players of the Open era used her serve nearly as effectively as Venus and, to a lesser extent, Serena. The ones who did (at times, Brenda Schultz-McCarthy, Helena Sukova, Jana Novotna, Jennifer Capriati) often didn't have enough to back it up and failed to reach the highest level and stay there.
Venus and Serena broke new ground at Wimbledon (in our interview, she virtually crowed about the fact that she had lost serve just eight times in the tournament - twice in the final, and once in each of her previous matches). Of course, other factors contributed to the sense that they had erased the asterisk - among them the bold selection, the pace of the rallies, the general lack of hesitancy the women showed. This last quality is hard to pin down, but it comes down to this: it's a great day when choking or mysterious lapses in shot control don't figure into a match, even though those factors often make matches more compelling. Choking, for example, is understandable when it occurs at an excruciating moment, but it's a buzz kill when it happens repeatedly, at unexpected times, or when it permeates a series of points or games. At such times, it's just frustrating and inexplicable, rather than revealing.
For all those reasons, the women's Wimbledon final made me believe that either I was watching the future of tennis, or simply lucky enough to be see two young women armed with a surfeit of gifts erase the asterisk. My gut feeling is that it may be the former; when a bar is moved higher, all contestants tend to jump higher. And Venus and Serena have set the bar higher than it's ever been before.
P.S. - I got a little sidetracked here, but I'll have another full-length post on the interview with Venus at a later date - perhaps right before the Olympic Games begin.