The Best at Her Best
by Steve Tignor
For a player of Serena Williams’ rank—No. 1 again, now that the dust has settled on 2009—and importance,
there’s never been much talk about exactly what makes her game special. We discuss the ways in which Roger
Federer uses his crosscourt backhand chip, and we know that Rafael Nadal can drill an ace up the T when his
opponent least expects it. But what about Serena? We know she’s fast, we know she’s fierce, we know she’s
got the best serve in the WTA. While those are crucial traits for any champion, we also know that an 11-time
Grand Slam winner must bring something a little more distinctive to the court.
Part of the problem is that Williams doesn’t always show us the best, let alone the most distinctive, elements
of her game. Even when she wins a major, she’ll throw in a clunker against a lesser opponent that makes you
wonder how she ever won all those Slams in the first place. But that wasn’t the case this past week in Doha.
Williams won 10 of the 11 sets she played, and she got better as she went. Even though she’d already qualified
for the semis, Williams trounced Elena Dementieva in her last round-robin match. In the final, she took her
sister Venus out of her game right from the start. There’s something satisfying in watching an all-time great
at her best and most determined, with all distractions cleared away.
It was a satisfying performance—the “real No. 1” took home the WTA’s biggest title—and an eye-opening
one as well. Or, I should say, it was an eye-narrowing performance. That’s what Serena did all afternoon
as she rocked back and forth before receiving her sister’s serve. In the past, she’s been known to betray
disgust with herself, or throw a choice word in her opponent’s direction, as she glares across the net.
On Sunday, though, Serena betrayed nothing but calmly forceful resolve. She wanted this one, and she
started getting it right away.
It used to be said of Pete Sampras that he was a master at taking his opponents out of their games early.
Serena did the same to Venus in the first set. She’d start by hitting a wide serve into the deuce court
that left Venus flailing and out of position. Then she’d follow it up by going at Venus’ body and hand-
cuffing her, a smart play against someone with limbs that long. It was a serving clinic from Serena in
the end. She finished with no double faults and won an astounding 82 percent of her second-serve
points—that’s dominance, and it put an exclamation point, if one were needed, on what raised her
above her all of her competition this year.
As the set progressed, Serena started to do the same with her returns, taking them earlier and earlier
and leaving Venus with nothing to do but scramble for her life. Venus couldn’t save herself; she started
to press and she started to miss. At first glance, watching her pull routine shots wide or rifle them into
the net, it appeared that Venus was simply having an off day. But Serena had rattled her and forced to
try for more than she normal does. The problem for Venus is that, unlike most of her opponents, Serena
is just as good at retrieving as she is, and she’s a better attacker. This is part of the explanation for why
their matches have been marked by spotty play; they get to balls that would be winners against other
players. More important, it also puts Venus in a bind; she has try to out-attack Serena. By the end of the
first set, Serena knew that all she had to do was play safely and steadily, keep Venus moving, and direct
most of the balls to her sister's more erratic forehand.
Venus found her range from the ground in the second set and held serve without much trouble. She had
the upper hand in many of the rallies, and it was Serena who began to find the net. This time it was
Serena’s competitive will, as much as her shots, that pulled her through. When she needed a strong serve,
she got it; despite Venus’ improved play, she never held a break point. The strongest and most important
of Serena’s serves came at 5-4 in the tiebreaker. The two had changed sides with Serena up 5-1 and the
match seemingly in hand. Then she made three backhand errors, her worst streak of play all day. Could
Serena get a case of the yips? If she did, she didn’t show it. The look on her face after her final miss was
not one of anger or exasperation; it was one of benign concern, of a wrong she needed to make right.
And she did, with an authoritative ace to make it 6-4—you could see Venus’ back slump after the ball
went past her—and a fearless crosscourt forehand at match point. Serena’s celebration was in keeping
with her demeanor day. She was outwardly muted—the sisters’ didn’t embrace at the net—but there was
deep relief all over her face. It had been satisfying to see her play this match, and it was satisfying after-
ward to see how much she wanted it.
So back to my first question: What’s special about Serena’s game? There are many elements you could
point to, of course, but what struck me in Doha was how the normal rules of the sport don’t seem to
apply to her. She can run through an approach shot and still put it right where she wants it. She can hit
a backhand winner with her body completely open and parallel to the net. She can make perfectly solid
contact with a ball even she's off balance. She can get to a short ball a second late and find a way to flip
it inside-out for a surprisingly angled winner.
Her ability to do this is generally chalked up to the vague and faintly insulting term “athleticism.” And
that’s got a lot to do with it, even if it is a cliché. It was said that Boris Becker couldn’t put two service
tosses in a row anywhere near each other, but it didn’t matter, he was such an athlete that he just went
up and crushed the ball, wherever it happened to be—the normal rules didn’t apply to him. But when it
comes to the Williamses, I also think of something Andy Roddick said about the way the sisters trained
as kids in Florida. He said that no one worked more diligently or hit balls with more purpose or dedication
than they did. What seems like talent or god-given athleticism in a top player is always the product of
work as well, work that was done long before we saw that player on TV. Serena is still living off of it.
Whatever position she finds herself in as she sets up for a shot, her ability to make something out of it,
to hit the ball well, remains automatic.
The 2009 season came down to the Williams sisters, and it came down to Serena. She won two majors, and
for the first time since 2001 was at her best at the Sony Ericsson Championships. This may not happen in
2010, when Justine and Kim and Maria are back at full strength—let’s hope Serena can bring this kind of
game into the new year. Back in January, at the Australian Open, she had put on an even more dominating
performance in the final against Dinara Safina. By the end of that match, as effortless winners came off
Williams’ racquet, Mary Carillo asked with some exasperation, “Why can’t I have more of this?” After a week
of wild and painful drama in Doha, I found myself thinking the same thing about women’s tennis in general.
Why can’t we have more serves like this? Why can’t we have more solid and impressive tennis? Maybe we will
next year. Until then, I’m happy to leave 2009 with a reminder, six weeks after she was at her worst at the
U.S. Open, of how good the women's game can look when Serena Williams is at her best.