The Mettle Winners
January 30, 2010 - 12:03 PM
What a difference a year makes. In 2009, the wretched women’s championship was effectively over by the time the late arrivers had shuffled into Rod Laver Arena on the first changeover. In a deflating final that saw Serena Williams annihilate a hopeless, helpless and hapless Dinara Safina 6-0, 6-3, very few points, let alone games, were competitive. When Serena, inexplicably, thanked Safina for “putting on such a good show for women’s tennis” during the trophy ceremony, the unlucky Saturday night spectators groaned at the preposterousness of her remark: The painfully lopsided laugher of a final had lasted just 59 drama-free minutes.
Happily, this year’s ticketholders got their money’s worth. The up-and-down final saw world No. 1 and top seed Serena Williams conquer comeback queen Justine Henin in three tense sets. By the end of the opening game, in which Serena fought back from double break point down to, after four deuces, hold serve, it was clear that both players were in formidable form. And the first-rate tennis that was showcased over the next two hours was evidence not only of Williams’s and Henin’s physical gifts, but also of their mental fortitude.
Though she was playing in just her second tournament back from retirement, Henin looked like she’d never been away. Her adjusted serve is still a work in progress (she got only 50 percent of her first serves in), but she hung in all the baseline rallies with Serena, matching power with power. Henin’s one-handed backhand is as gorgeous as ever, and her forehand looked even more lethal than it had in 2007.
But more impressive than the fact that her tennis wasn’t negatively affected by her absence is the fact that she is still as much of a fighter as she was pre-retirement. Competing in her first Grand Slam final in two-and-a-half years, Henin didn’t appear to suffer any emotional lapses. She could have been forgiven for getting discouraged after the first set, in which she squandered two break points in the first game, another in the third game, and two more in the fifth before finally getting a break (to even the set) with Serena serving in the seventh. Henin was broken at 4-5 for that first set, and when she went down 15-40 in her first service game of the second, one got the sense that the match might be over in a hurry. Instead, the gritty Belgian gutted out a hold and then broke Serena at love to regain momentum and rouse the crowd, which was fully behind her the whole night.
As good as it is for the game to have Henin’s talent and tenacity back on center stage, it was Serena’s mettle that ultimately won her a fifth Australian Open title tonight. There’s no doubt that Serena is a superior player. But for all her weapons—the serve, the bludgeoned groundstrokes, the athleticism—her steely resolve may be her most important asset. Serena has established a stellar 12-3 record in Grand Slam finals largely because she has the ability to summon her best tennis when the match is on the line. Tonight, fighting a sore hamstring and facing an ardently pro-Henin crowd (and a fitter opponent), Serena still managed to bring her best tennis in the decisive points of the third set.
After Henin had reeled off 15 straight points, a run that started in the seventh game of the second set and lasted into the second game of the third, Serena was able to quell the momentum and reassert her game, firing one of 12 aces on the night for an emphatic hold for 1-1. Henin and Serena exchanged breaks in the next two games, but from 2-2 forward, Serena played championship tennis, winning 16 of the final 22 points against a fading Henin. Serving for the championship at 5-2, Serena hit two aces and a service winner.
“My mental game is really strong,” she explained afterwards, when asked about the source of her competitive resolve. “My dad always said that tennis is 70 percent mental, and I believe that mentally I’m probably one of the toughest on the tour.”
That toughness has now won Serena 12 Grand Slam singles titles, a mark that ties her with Billie Jean King for sixth on the all-time list. Tonight, Serena was correct to express her admiration for King during another otherwise unfortunate victory speech, which was bookended with references to God and Gatorade. But though her poorly timed plug for her sponsor was as distasteful as last year’s Federer-Nadal ceremony was poignant, the night was ultimately a triumphant one for Serena. She and Henin are athletes who perform best when the competitive stakes are highest. And that ability to be clutch is the reason Williams is the 2010 Australian Open champion.
“You have this [determination] at the beginning, but you can improve a lot,” a disappointed but composed Henin said afterwards when discussing her mental game. “I was quite fragile when I was younger, then got really stronger in the important situations. And Serena proved again that she has it.”