Game of Her Dreams
Steve Tignor Sept 08, 2012
NEW YORK—The consensus after Serena Williams’s 6-1, 6-2 win over Sara Errani in their U.S. Open semifinal on Friday afternoon wasn’t that the Italian had been routinely thrashed, or that she had played poorly, or that her tactics hadn’t worked, or that she hadn’t belonged on the same court with Serena in the first place. No, the talk among much of the sport’s cognoscenti was about how well Errani had done. Many informed observers were surprised that she had been able to wrest three games away from Williams and keep herself alive for more than an hour (Errani lasted for 64 minutes, to be exact).
This is where we are with Serena Williams at the moment. She wins a Grand Slam semifinal 1 and 2 and people are praising her opponent for making it that tough on her. What’s next? Giving the women she faces a two-game head start in each set?
I had thought that her decimation of the field at the Olympics might have been a special case, the product of a once-every-four-years focus. So far, though, Williams has been just as sharp and untouchable here. She lost 17 games in six matches in London; she’s given up 19 in six matches in New York. If anything, this has been an even more impressive performance, because she’s done it without the specific, extra-fierce intensity that she carried with her at the Olympics. At the Open, she’s just been better than everyone else.
Why? Why is she playing her best, cleanest, most consistent tennis now, 14 years into her career, at age 30? After doing it her way and her way only for so long, Williams has gone a little more mainstream in 2012. She’s working with a veteran coach, Patrice Mouratoglou, and has switched to a trendy set of hybrid strings. Serena and Venus were famous when they were younger for playing with racquets that were considered far too powerful for any pro to use. A decade ago, they told Wilson, their racquet-makers, to give them the most powerful frames they could make, and that they’d find a way to control the ball with them. Maybe a more conventional approach has helped her control the ball a little bit better.
I can remember a press conference at the Open years ago when Serena asked the media, “Can you imagine if I didn’t make so many errors, you guys?” She smiled at the thought of how good she could be, but it sounded like a dream—it seemed that her game would always be to hit big and accept the mistakes that came with that style. Now, though, the mistakes aren’t coming. At the Olympics and so far the Open, she’s turned herself into the player she imagined that she could be.
It’s no surprise that steadiness has been her watchword of late. In general, she has been patient. “I definitely played better today,” Williams said of her semifinal. “I played better than my other matches.
Asked what was better, she said, “I was more consistent. I did make some errors, but I was more consistent than I was in the past.”
Of course, consistency was not the biggest difference between Williams and Errani: shotmaking and power were. Serena hit a mind-boggling 32 more winners than the Italian (38 to six), against just 21 unforced errors. She also hit nine aces and didn’t allow Errani a break point. The match was won largely in the first two shots of the rally. The 5-foot-5 Errani couldn’t handle Serena’s serve, either the flat one or the slider; she didn’t have the reach to catch up to the latter. At the same time, Errani’s own serve sat up slow and short in Williams’s strike zone. A recipe for a blowout all around. Errani’s explanation of her tactics pointed up the comic futility of this match for her:
“I just try,” she said. “I just try everything I could. I just try first set to be a bit more on the defense, to receive the ball a bit more far away, and play her high balls and try to make that game. Then was not so good, so I changed and try to be a bit more aggressive.
“In any case," she concluded, "it was very difficult.”
Difficult indeed. Maybe the pundits were right to praise Errani—looking at what I just wrote above, it does seem amazing that she carved out three games. As for Serena, she moves on with rightful confidence. She called her opponent in the final, Victoria Azarenka, the most consistent player this year. But Serena made sure to mention that, “I always believe I’m the best obviously.” Williams has beaten Vika in straight sets three times in 2012, and is 9-1 in their career head to head. Though a few of their recent matches, including one at the Open last year, have featured very competitive tennis and tiebreak sets.
Serena claims she feels “more experienced” after losing to Sam Stosur in last year’s final. She said that after her late semifinal win in 2011 that she didn’t get to bed until 4:00 A.M. Unfortunately for Vika, Serena finished much earlier this time around. But Williams isn’t counting out any final-round craziness on Saturday. A reporter told her today, “For once nothing weird or distracting has happened here.”
“Hey, it’s not done yet,” Serena said with a smile. If she plays with the measured aggressiveness that she’s been using the last two weeks, it probably is.