Can anyone stop Serena? By Greg Garber (ESPN.com)
Can anyone stop Serena?
By Greg Garber
PARIS -- Ai Sugiyama, eyes wide, kicks at the clay along the baseline of Court Suzanne Lenglen. Her slumping body language suggests she is already out of her match with Serena Williams but, oddly enough, the reverse is true. Sugiyama has just broken Williams with a delicate backhand volley and is actually two points from a 5-2 lead in the first set of their Round of 16 match at the French Open.
Serena Williams has won 32 consecutive matches at the Slams.
Williams misses her first serve at 30-all and she contemplates her Wilson racket, takes a deep breath and blasts a serve that bites down hard, into the outside corner of the box. All Sugiyama can do is lunge and dump a weak forehand into the net. Another big serve and Williams escapes with the game.
Serving to go up 5-3, Sugiyama is hanging in there at 15-30, when Williams seems to find another level. In a bruising, alley-to-alley rally, Williams works Sugiyama into an awkward position, then pounces like a cheetah. She sprints to net and with a gruesome bellow -- annnnnghhhh! -- knocks off a swinging forehand volley that somehow seems more frightening than the scream itself.
Sugiyama meekly double faults -- for the sixth time under duress. The scoreboard says the match is even, but it is effectively over. Cause and Effect. Even when Serena Williams is behind -- especially when she is behind -- she inspires shock and, frankly, awe in her opponents.
SHE JUST KEEPS GOING
Serena Williams has now won 32 consecutive matches in the major tournaments. Here's a look at each one:
2002 French Open
First round -- def. Martina Sucha, 6-3, 6-0.
Second round -- def. Dally Randriantefy, 6-2, 6-3.
Third round -- def. Janette Husarova, 6-1, 6-3.
Fourth round -- def. Vera Zvonareva, 4-6, 6-0, 6-1.
Quarterfinals -- def. Mary Pierce, 6-1, 6-1.
Semifinals -- def. Jennifer Capriati, 3-6, 7-6 (2), 6-2.
Championship -- def. Venus Williams, 7-5, 6-3.
First round -- def. Evie Dominikovic, 6-1, 6-1.
Second round -- def. Francesca Schiavone, 6-3, 6-3.
Third round -- def. Els Callens, 7-6 (5), 7-6 (2).
Fourth round -- def. Chanda Rubin, 6-3, 6-3.
Quarterfinals -- def. Daniela Hantuchova, 6-3, 6-2.
Semifinals -- def. Amelie Mauresmo, 6-2, 6-1.
Championship -- def. Venus Williams, 7-6 (4), 6-3.
2002 U.S. Open
First round -- def. Corina Morariu, 6-2, 6-3.
Second round -- def. Dinara Safina, 6-0, 6-1.
Third round -- def. Nathalie Dechy, 6-1, 6-1.
Fourth round -- def. Daja Bedanova, 6-1, 6-1.
Quarterfinals -- def. Daniela Hantuchova, 6-2, 6-2.
Semifinals -- def. Lindsay Davenport, 6-3, 7-5.
Championship -- def. Venus Williams, 6-4, 6-3.
2003 Australian Open
First round -- def. Emilie Loit, 3-6, 7-6 (5), 7-5.
Second round -- def. Els Callens, 6-4, 6-0.
Third round -- def. Tamarine Tanasugarn, 6-1, 6-1.
Fourth round -- def. Eleni Daniilidou, 6-4, 6-1.
Quarterfinals -- def. Meghann Shaughnessy, 6-2, 6-2.
Semifinals -- def. Kim Clijsters, 4-6, 6-3, 7-5.
Championship -- def. Venus Williams, 7-6 (4), 3-6, 6-4.
2003 French Open
First round -- def. Barbara Rittner, 6-2, 6-1.
Second round -- def. Marie-Gaiane Mikaelian, 6-3, 6-2.
Third round -- def. Barbara Schett, 6-0, 6-0.
Fourth round -- def. Ai Sugiyama, 7-5, 6-3.
Quarterfinals vs. Amelie Mauresmo
"I was nervous," Sugiyama explained later. "I knew (on) second serve, I knew she's going to attack, so I'm trying to do too much, then thinking too much, then it's kind of slow and kind of too much spin on it."
Williams is the No. 1 player in the world and, even in a modest tournament in, say, Rome or Charleston, her presence is powerful and foreboding. But in the crucible of a Grand Slam, she becomes absolutely ruthless.
"Two weeks ago in Rome, she was looking all over the place between points, not really all that focused," said ESPN analyst Mary Joe Fernandez, one of only four women to have a winning record against Williams. "Here, she goes right to the racket on every point.
"The players say her focus is much greater in the Slams, she's much quieter in the locker room."
And for those players trying to beat her, that's a bad thing.
Williams is now three matches from winning her fifth consecutive Grand Slam singles title, something only Martina Navratilova and Steffi Graf have done. That's a fairly staggering streak of 32 consecutive matches. The record is 45 consecutive Grand Slam match victories, achieved by Navratilova, who won Wimbledon in 1983 then rolled to six straight titles before losing in the semifinals of the 1984 Australian Open. Graf actually won 45 consecutive Grand Slam singles matches, between 1995-97, but missed the Australian Open in both 1995 and 1996. The streak ended when she lost to Amanda Coetzer in the fourth round of the 1997 Australian Open. Williams, if she keeps winning, could break Navratilova's record in the round of 16 at the U.S. Open.
Williams, 21, has beaten her sister Venus in the past four Grand Slam finals but the streak includes a veritable Who's Who of victims: Kim Clijsters, Jennifer Capriati, Lindsay Davenport and Amelie Maresmo.
When Williams won her first three tournaments of the 2003 season, the Australian Open, Paris Indoors and Key Biscayne, and reached the finals in Charleston in early April, she ran her record to 21-0. Williams had talked openly of going undefeated -- something that has never happened in professional tennis -- and her dominance tended to suspend everyone's disbelief.
And then Justine Henin-Hardenne beat her 6-3, 6-4 in the final. A month later, in Rome, Mauresmo lost the first set 6-1, but rallied to win 7-5, 6-3 in the semifinals at Rome. When Williams lost that second of five WTA matches, people mused that she had taken her eye off the ball, and wondered if the pressure of being No. 1 for nearly a year was getting to her.
No less an authority than Navratilova -- winner of a combined 57 Grand Slam championships, second on the all-time list to Margaret Court -- says, to paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of Serena's demise are greatly exaggerated.
"Serena and Venus have dominated the Grand Slams," Navratilova said last week. "The rest of the tournaments are more of an even playing field. The Slams, they get up for that, they play a little harder, play their way into the tournament better. They're definitely more difficult to beat in the Slams. You can't go against them based on just the last couple years' history.
"But I think the other players think they have more of a chance now. Serena lost a couple of matches. Venus lost a few matches. That aura of invincibility is gone for the other tournaments. Slams, they still have it. Let's see if somebody can break that down, too."
A (more) level playing field?
Could this be one of the most competitive Grand Slams in recent times? In other words, her sister proved beatable, but is Serena?
These questions have created a strong undertow here at the French Open. Kim Clijsters, the No. 2 seed, was asked about her feelings. Have the Williams come back to the field?
There was a long pause. A forced smile.
"I don't know," Clijsters said. "I mean, it would be nice. I think it would be great to see. Remember I watched yesterday the final of 1996 (French Open, featuring Arantxa) Sanchez against Steffi Graf on TV. It was just great to see that match again.
"I hope. It would be great to have that competitiveness again, you know, to have some great matches. We've had some of those matches already, at the Australian Open, things like that."
That Australian Open semifinal is the reason "hope" springs eternal here in Paris. Clijsters led Williams 5-1 in the third set, but unraveled to lose 4-6, 6-3, 7-5. Nonetheless, she is the one woman here given a chance to end all of Serena's Grand Slam streaks.
Clijsters would like nothing better than an instant replay of Graf's 6-3, 6-7 (4), 10-8 victory over Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario in the 1996 French Open final.
Once upon a time, Martina Hingis became the first woman to beat Venus and Serena in the same Grand Slam, at the 2001 Australian Open. At the end of last year, Clijsters became the second. She took out the sisters at the WTA Championships in Los Angeles. The one thing missing from her growing resume: A Grand Slam.
"Since winning in L.A., I think I have become more consistent and that was something that I had to do," Clijsters said. "A year or a year and a half ago, I think my best level was similar to what it is now, but I just could not keep it up long enough. In a lot of matches, I couldn't keep focus. Then, without me really working on it, it clicked. You learn, of course, out of every match you play. Now I feel like when I'm out on the court I'm so much more comfortable."
Kim Clijsters has amazing agility and reach.
ESPN analyst Mary Carillo observed: "It's a more of a defense-oriented tennis court here. It's not just the red clay that blunts their power, it's the biggest court in the world. It's a defender's court and she's really good at spitting back balls on any kind of court. On clay, she's a good slider, splaying her legs. She has an extra fraction of a moment, that much more of a look at the ball, and she'll take every advantage she can."
The players say they believe they have more of an opportunity here.
"I definitely think it's very open this year," Jennifer Capriati said before losing in the fourth round. "You know, the Williams sisters have seemed a little more vulnerable, and the other players have been playing a lot better, too. I mean, Kim is on a roll. She's playing some great tennis. She's No. 2 in the world. The others, Henin, Mauresmo, I think everyone, they're maturing, also. They're still quite young, so I think they're maturing into great players, coming into their own.
"The fear factor is really not there anymore."
Going for every ball
On television, Serena is impressive to watch. In person, she approaches unfathomable.
Her groundstrokes are staggeringly heavy. The torque on her serve is impressive and it is difficult to read. Her speed, from side to side is astonishing; she routinely runs down a backhand past the doubles alley, then sprints back into the point, taking a forehand in the other doubles alley.
Early in her match with Sugiyama, Serena was standing behind the baseline when the Japanese player loosed a late, well-disguised drop shot. She got a late break on the ball, but closed quickly and actually got her racket on it. It never occurred to her that she was going to crash into the net. She did, with immense force, almost taking it down. All she saw was the ball.
She didn't get it over, but her effort drew a sincere round of applause.
"She's really fast, she's all over," said Sugiyama after her round of 16 loss to Serena. "Even though I hit down the line, I knew for sure ball coming back, so I was ready for the next one. If I make open court, still she gets the next one.
“ I don't really focus on which person's side is better -- they hit this at this degree and this angle. Normally when I'm out there, I focus on what I'm going to do. ”
— Serena Williams
"To use the court well, that's the strategy against her. You can't really hit side to side because she moves everything. She gets every ball."
Said Serena, after Sugiyama, "When it really mattered, I was able to pick up my game. I think that's been one point about me that I've always been able to do, especially lately, is to be able to pick up the level of my game when I really need to."
The scary thing? She can get better, she says, a lot better. Billie Jean King, the U.S. Fed Cup captain, has been urging both Williams sisters to take greater advantage of their physical tools. She wants them to rush the net more often and apply even more pressure. At least in Serena's game, it's starting to happen more often.
If Serena is going to lose a Grand Slam this year, conventional wisdom says it will be here at Roland Garros because the clay blunts her power.
"Maybe it's one surface she doesn't like so much," Mauresmo said. "I just feel maybe she has a bit more trouble moving. Yeah, probably one of the surface[s] you can maybe try to disturb her."
Before their quarterfinal, Serena was asked about Mauresmo's down-the-line backhand. Serena' answer was revealing.
"I don't really focus on which person's side is better -- they hit this at this degree and this angle," she said. "Normally when I'm out there, I focus on what I'm going to do."
And when that focus is there -- as it has been for those 32 consecutive Grand Slam matches -- Serena is unbeatable.
It seems the only person who can beat Serena Williams is Serena Williams. It's not bragging, if it's the truth.
"Yeah," she said, "I think that's definitely a hundred percent accurate. I mean, all the matches I've lost I've pretty much beaten myself. It's not like I went out and did everything I could have done and played great, was just amazing. It hasn't been (like that).
"It's been that way for a couple of years now. Whenever I lose, it's not because the girl I lost to played an outstanding match; it's normally because I'm making 80 errors, just not doing the things I need to do."
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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