Serena wins before stepping on court
Serena wins before stepping on court
By Greg Garber
PARIS -- Three weeks earlier, Amelie Mauresmo had actually beaten Serena Williams, but that was merely a semifinal at the Italian Open. On Tuesday, it was a Grand Slam quarterfinal and, well, it wasn't pretty.
Even Serena's opponents aren't sure they can beat her the way she's playing this week.
In fact, it was gruesome. Williams torched the tortured French woman 6-1, 6-2 to stay on track for her fifth consecutive Grand Slam singles title.
So, Amelie, is Serena the favorite?
"Well, she hasn't won a Grand Slam for some time," Mauresmo said, smiling. "Obviously, she is the favorite. But Kim (Clijsters) is playing very well. Justine (Henin-Hardenne) is playing very well. (Nadia) Petrova, I think, is dangerous. Serena can win, of course, but there could be a surprise, as well. I don't know."
Williams, the No. 1 seed, meets No. 4-seeded Henin-Hardenne in Thursday's French Open semifinal; No. 2 seeded Clijsters faces the unseeded Petrova.
Mauresmo's public optimism -- some would call it whistling past the graveyard -- also has been advanced by some of the other participants. Henin-Hardenne is buoyed by the fact that she, too, beat Williams earlier this year, in straight sets in the finals at Charleston.
"Last time, I won," said Henin-Hardenne after beating Chanda Rubin in the quarters. "I know what all the strengths and weaknesses of Serena are. I'm quite aware of them. Serena will tell you she played very badly in Charleston; this is what she thinks. I have nothing else to add."
Indeed, Williams claims she played poorly there and, by her standards, she did.
She blew through her first three matches here, losing only eight games in six sets (do the math), but struggled a bit against Ai Sugiyama in the Round of 16, falling behind 2-4 in the opening set before rallying to win 7-5, 6-3. Williams was not happy with her result and came out smoking against Mauresmo.
The look on Williams' face -- there was a dangerous, smoldering intensity in her eyes -- bordered on frightening. It was a window to her enormous desire to win here again.
What happens when the sport's best player -- quite possibly the world's best athlete in relation to her peers -- is also the one who wants it most?
What happens is 33 consecutive Grand Slam singles match victories, the sixth-longest streak in modern times. When was the last time she felt that kind of juice?
"I guess it's been a while," Williams said. "Maybe at Wimbledon, actually, against Amelie Mauresmo at Wimbledon in the semifinals. I was petty determined then, as well. When you get that far in a tournament, you definitely want to go to the next level."
ESPN analyst Mary Carillo was asked if she had ever seen Williams so locked in.
"Yeah," she said. "Certainly, at Wimbledon. You don't see it anywhere but the majors.
“ At that point, it's just my desire. I think no one can put one -- no one can say to someone else, you know, 'You have to do this. Go, go, go.' You have to say it to yourself so you can be motivated./b> ”
— Serena Williams
"That game face was hilarious. What was great was that it wasn't even sinister, so calm and focused. I've seen her do sinister, but she was beyond that. On changeovers, with her eyes closed ... whether they were open or closed, you knew how present she was on the court."
Last year, on the way to her first French Open title, she played the minimum 14 sets in seven matches and was forced to only three tiebreakers. This year, she has gone through five matches in 10 sets -- with no tiebreakers. She has lost only 19 games and spent an efficient five hours and 14 minutes on the court.
"I think if you're a betting person," said Chanda Rubin, who lost to Henin-Hardenne in the quarterfinals, "you'd have to bet on her again.
"She obviously wants it again this year. That's the biggest thing on clay. Who wants it the most? Who's willing to pay the price?"
And while this is Williams' eighth Grand Slam semifinal, she still feels the tingle.
"It doesn't feel routine at all," Williams said. "I feel very pumped up to be in the semifinal, and I want to go ahead and win a few more matches here.
"There just comes a time in everyone -- they just have to stop and just get serious. Usually, the quarterfinals of a Grand Slam is usually when I put in a new gear and I usually say to myself, 'I have a chance to win this tournament. I've gotten this far, maybe I can go another couple steps.
"At that point, it's just my desire. I think no one can put one -- no one can say to someone else, you know, 'You have to do this. Go, go, go.' You have to say it to yourself so you can be motivated."
Carillo read the quote off an interview transcript and laughed.
"Serena says, 'Going, going gone,' " Carillo said. "Venus, hopefully, will get that back. You know, Serena learned that from her sister."
And that is the irony here. Venus, the No. 1 player for three different periods of 2002, is sliding down the rankings. She will be No. 4 next week, supplanted by Justine Henin-Hardenne. It was Venus, who by example taught her younger sister how to fight, how to believe in herself.
Some people here believe that Henin and Clijsters have a chance against Williams.
"I think Justine is very capable," Mauresmo said. "She's beaten her this year once. I think it will be an interesting match."
Clijsters has generated similar numbers to Williams. She's lost only two more games (21) and actually spent three fewer minutes on the court. She, too, lost only three games in her quarterfinal match. Of course, Conchita Martinez, Clijsters' quarters opponent is not nearly the player Mauresmo is.
Can Clijsters beat Williams if they both advance to the final?
"No one beats her when she plays like that," Carillo said. "She can try to create ways to get Serena out of that, but nobody beats a Serena of that stripe. I've said it for years, Venus and Serena ... the only person who can beat her when she plays like that is herself."
Williams has had only a few nervous moments in her Grand Slam run. She lost the first set to Jennifer Capriati in last year's semifinal here and the second set went to a tiebreaker. Williams won the breaker 7-2 and the third set 6-2.
At this year's Australian Open, Clijsters led her in the third set of their semifinal match by a 5-1 count -- and lost, 7-5.
"She just raised her level so much higher," Clijsters said. "In the beginning, she was making a lot of mistakes. I don't think I did anything differently from 5-1 to when she won that match. She just didn't make any mistakes any more. She was hitting winners on my first serves and things like that.
"That's why she's so mentally strong, because she goes and can make her level go higher during a match."
Could she, would she, should she have done anything differently?
"No," Clijsters said. "I didn't have that in my hands, I think."