In many ways, this is incomprehensible. Serena Williams approached the Australian Open ranked No. 81 in the world. She had played only four tournaments in 2006, with her last appearance of that season taking place at the U.S. Open. She lost there in the fourth round to Amelie Mauresmo in three sets but did not compete again for the rest of the year. Then she played one warm up tournament before the Australian Open, performed with mediocrity, fell in the quarterfinals. And yet, after giving her fans little reason for encouragement, she went out and won her first tournament since capturing the 2005 Australian Open, knocking out six seeds in the process!
How to explain it? Williams must be at least 15 pounds overweight and yet she moved incredibly well despite the excess pounds. Only Serena could have pulled this off after so long away from the game’s upper echelons. The first significant step she made was toppling No. 5 seed Nadia Petrova. The Russian built a 6-1, 5-3 lead in that intriguing contest but Serena collected four games in a row to force a third set. She came away with a 1-6, 7-5, 6-3 win. Petrova needed to put Williams away in straights sets before Serena found her range but she failed to close it out when the chance was there. Then Serena took apart No. 11 seed Jelena Jankovic 6-3, 6-2 in a match which was closer than the score would indicate. Back to back wins of that caliber did not harm Serena’s confidence in the least.
But there was much more work to be done, more obstacles to overcome. The tenacious Shahar Peer of Israel—seeded 16th— served for the match at 6-5 in the final set against Williams in the quarterfinals and reached 30-30, only two points away from victory. Once more, Serena did not buckle, taking three games in a row to complete a 3-6, 6-2, 8-6 triumph. That set the stage for Williams to face the tall and imposing Nicole Vaidisova, the No. 10 seed. Vaidisova, appearing in her second semifinal at a Grand Slam event, served for the first set and squandered a set point. Williams came through 7-6, 6-4 after wasting a 5-1 lead in the second set. She did not look very impressive in that match.
Waiting for Serena in the final was none other than Maria Sharapova, the top seed who had guaranteed herself the No. 1 world ranking by virtue of reaching the final in Melbourne. Sharapova and Williams had not met since the semifinals of the 2005 Australian Open, when Serena somehow rescued herself to win 2-6, 7-5, 8-6 after Sharapova served for the match in the second set and had three match points in the third set. The year before, Sharapova had startled two-time defending champion Williams 6-1, 6-4 in the final of Wimbledon to win her first major.
When Sharapova lost to Williams in their 2005 Australian Open clash, it was the first in a string of five frustrating defeats she suffered in the penultimate round at the Grand Slam events. She finally broke out of that syndrome last year at the U.S. Open, when she imperiously cast aside both Amelie Mauresmo and Justine Henin-Hardenne for her long awaited second major crown. Sharapova made a strong bid to finish 2006 as the top ranked player in the world but was overtaken by the supreme discipline and determination of Henin-Hardenne.
Nevertheless, with Henin-Hardenne skipping the Australian Open for personal reasons, the door was wide open for Sharapova to come through again on a big occasion. Despite a severe scare in her opening round assignment against France’s Camille Pin when she drifted within two points of defeat with the temperatures well above 110 degrees, Sharapova moved on to the final of this event without the loss of another set. But, along the way, she had considerable difficulty with her serve.
It was strange to see Sharapova having so much trouble with her rhythm on serve since she had established herself over the course of 2006 as the finest server in the female game. Did her coach Michael Joyce and her father make her too aware of her service woes during the fortnight? Were they tampering with her mechanics? Only Sharapova knows the answers to those questions, but she has never looked so uncertain on serve. In any event, her evaporating confidence was evident from the outset of her final round duel with Serena. She looked afraid to hit her second serve with customary authority and depth. Making matters worse, Sharapova was timid on her first serve, compromising too much, enabling Serena to crack sizzling returns from inside the baseline for outright winners, or at least take control of the points.
Serena was absolutely magnificent. She committed a mere 11 unforced errors while producing 28 winners. This was the finest sustained display of all-out aggression and consistency I have ever seen from Williams, who crushed Sharapova 6-1, 6-2 in 63 impeccable minutes. Not only was this her best ever display in a Grand Slam final, but it was also the finest tennis she has ever played on any important stage regardless of the round. She did not lose her serve. She returned with overwhelming force and reliability. She kept Sharapova on her heels from start to finish. It was devastatingly potent stuff. In five of her previous seven final round triumphs at the majors, Serena had beaten her sister Venus. In her other two Grand Slam tournament final round wins, Serena stopped Martina Hingis in the 1999 U.S. Open final and upended Lindsay Davenport at the 2005 Australian Open.
Serena clearly surpassed all of those other performances by a wide margin this time around. The hope here is that she finally realizes that an athlete has a very limited life span, that she has an obligation to herself to buckle down now while she can still perform in her prime, that she must put acting and everything else in her universe aside for a while and make the most of her tennis. Now. Without interruption for the next three years. No more excuses. If she does that, she will win at least three or four more majors, and perhaps more. Looking at this year alone, if she avoids injuries, she stands an excellent chance of winning at least one more prestigious prize.
At both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, Williams will be awfully tough to beat if she keeps her mind on her business. She will not be 26 until after the U.S. Open. So the path ahead should be full of possibilities for Serena Williams. Meanwhile, we can all pause to put her comeback into perspective. In modern times, there has been nothing quite like that. Pete Sampras went two years without winning a tournament after securing his record-breaking 13th major at Wimbledon, enduring a 33 tournament drought in the process before concluding his career with a remarkable triumph at the 2002 U.S. Open.
But Sampras had not been that far from the center of the action. During his slump, he still made it to the 2000 and 2001 U.S. Open finals. He was still the No. 17 seed when he took that last Open. Serena’s plight might resemble Andre Agassi’s even more. He went from winning three majors between 1992 and 1995 to a No. 141 world ranking in the fall of 1997. One year later, he finished 1998 at No. 6 in the world and in 1999 he was the No. 1 ranked player in the world after winning two majors and reaching the final of a third. Serena would do well to remember what happened to Agassi, who played some of the most consistent tennis of his career after sinking to his low point. His late career maturity was apparent to one and all. In fact, from 1999 (at age 29) to 2003 (at nearly 33) he won five of his total of eight career Grand Slam tournaments. He made up for lost time, which Serena needs to do now.
As for Sharapova, this loss will sting for quite a while. It was the most decisive loss she has ever suffered in 21 career Grand Slam tournament appearances. It was her first setback in three major finals. And it was particularly distressing in light of the fact that Sharapova was in the process of reclaiming the No. 1 world ranking she had first garnered in August of 2005. As brilliant and unerring as Serena was in the final of the Australian, Sharapova visited the other extreme. At least as I saw it while watching the coverage on ESPN 2, she seemed thoroughly disheartened. I have never seen her so passive since she arrived in the upper reaches of the sport in 2004. Her spirit was entirely broken by Williams.
By the early stages of the second set, she seemed to have given up all hope. To some extent, her reaction was understandable because Serena was playing tennis that was out of this world. But why couldn’t Sharapova take more risks and at least make a more concerted effort to dictate the tempo of the match? Why did it take her until 0-4 down in the second set to serve two decent games in a row? Why did she keep serving wide to Serena’s forehand in the deuce court when it was strikingly apparent that Serena was anticipating that delivery and jumping all over it with scorching returns? Why didn’t Maria shift her strategy and make a better attempt to unsettle Serena? I have a feeling that if Henin-Hardenne had been out there in the final, she would have found a way to make more a match of it.
In any event, Williams is back at No. 14 in the world and it won’t be long before she is among the top ten again. From there, a rise to the top five should be relatively swift as well. If she plays a full schedule in 2007 and is fortunate enough to avoid injuries, she could well conclude the year at No. 1 in the world. It will be intriguing to see if there are any residual effects from this Williams-Sharapova contest down the road? The next two to three contests between Williams and Sharapova will tell us a great deal about where the women’s game is headed in the immediate future, as will the next few battles featuring Henin-Hardenne against the American and the Russian.
This much is certain. The renewed vitality of Serena Williams has given the game a much needed lift at just the right time.
Double Digits for Federer
The world No. 1 has done it again, garnering a tenth major title to rule in Melbourne, conquering seven adversaries without the loss of a single set, becoming the first man since Bjorn Borg at the French Open in 1980 to realize that remarkable feat. Federer has now won 10 of the last 15 Grand Slam events since his breakthrough triumph at Wimbledon in 2003. He has prevailed in 9 of the 13 “Big Four” tournaments since the start of 2004. He had won six of the seven majors since Wimbledon in 2005. And with his latest victory at the Australian Open— the third time he has won the season’s first major— he now will go into the French Open in May having won three consecutive Grand Slam events for the second year in a row. No other man in the “Open Era” has twice managed to secure three majors in a row.
Look at this phenomenal run, Federer has lost to only four players at the big ones since he took his first Wimbledon title in 2003. He was beaten later that year by David Nalbandian in the round of 16 at the U.S. Open. In 2004, three-time champion Gustavo Kuerten outclassed Federer in straight sets at Roland Garros. In 2005, Marat Safin saved a match point and ousted Federer in an epic five set Australian Open semifinal. Rafael Nadal removed Federer from the semifinals of the 2005 French Open and then stopped the world No. 1 again in the final at Roland Garros last year. What a record! What a tennis player. What an outstanding champion.
In the final of the Australian Open this time around, Federer halted the surging Fernando Gonzalez of Chile 7-6 (2), 6-4, 6-4. The No. 10 seed had enjoyed a stirring run to the final. In the third round, he beat former world No. 1 Lleyton Hewitt four sets. Then he toppled No. 5 seed James Blake in straight sets. His next victim was No. 2 seed Nadal in straight sets and then he routed the No. 12 seed Tommy Haas emphatically in straight sets. Coming into the final on the heels of those impressive victories gave Gonzalez a reason to be optimistic. Boosted immeasurably by the superb coaching of Larry Stefanki– the same man who worked with former world No. 1 players Yevgeny Kafelnikov and Marcelo Rios, not to mention John McEnroe—Gonzalez was clearly playing the most persuasive tennis in his life.
Always known for his explosive forehand— one of the best in the sport— he improved his backhand decidedly over the last year, learning to use his slice off that side until he had the right opening to unleash that shot with topspin. His old streaky tennis was replaced by a much better brand of percentage play. Most notably, he made only three unforced errors in three sets against Haas. Therefore, Federer was facing a more formidable player he had beaten nine times without a defeat.
That was evident over the course of the first set in the final. Gonzalez broke Federer for a 5-4 first set lead and served for the set in the tenth game. He reached 40-15, double set point. Federer saved the first set point by moving in smartly to cut off a slice backhand from Gonzalez in the air, directing his backhand volley crisply down the line and winning that point easily. But Gonzalez wounded himself irreparably on the second set point. He ran around his backhand for his trademark forehand and tried for an inside-in winner, going down the line to Federer’s forehand. Gonzalez made that shot frequently during the match but at this critical moment he misfired. His shot went into the net. Two points later, he lost that service game.
Both players fully recognized the significance of that moment in that set. Federer— an unsurpassed front runner— did not need to win the opening set and could well have won the match without it. He probably would have done just that. But Gonzalez had to win that set if he was going to have any chance to win the match. Had he held at that vital stage and gone out in front, he would have hit out more freely throughout the remainder of the contest and he would have made Roger fight hard from behind. Who knows what might have happened? Federer would surely not have panicked and would have surely raised the level of his game, but at least he would have been tested properly. At this level of the game, a player of Gonzalez’s caliber has no excuse for not serving out a set, particularly when so much was riding on its outcome. He knew what an opportunity he had missed.
Gonzalez fought hard to escape four set points when he served at 5-6 and reached a first set tie-break but he was never really in that sequence. From there, Federer rolled as expected, breaking his foe once in each of the last two sets to complete a 7-6 (2), 6-4, 6-4 victory. He has lost only once in eleven major finals and has defeated some top notch rivals in that span, beating Andy Roddick in three Grand Slam championship matches, knocking out Nadal, Lleyton Hewitt, Andre Agassi and Marat Safin in other big finals. Only Nadal at Roland Garros has beaten Federer in a major final, and he remains the only current top player who walks on court really believing he can beat Federer.
Federer’s win over Roddick in the semifinals of this Australian Open was one of the signature performances of his career. From 3-4 down on serve in the first set, Federer captured 11 games in a row as a despondent Roddick was broken five times in a row. The American advertised his distress too often and fell into utter confusion. Under the guidance of Jimmy Connors he had made major strides with his attacking game. On his way to his meeting with Federer in Melbourne, Roddick had approached and attacked exceedingly well in accounting for both Safin and Mario Ancic.
Moreover, Roddick has played first rate tennis against Federer in recent collisions. At the U.S. Open he lost in four sets. In Shanghai, he had three match points before losing. And then in an exhibition on the eve of the Australian Open in Melbourne, he beat his rival. He seemed to be gaining ground in his understanding of how to play the redoubtable Federer. But Federer took him apart this time 6-4, 6-0, 6-2 with ruthless efficiency. It was as if he was saying to Roddick, “You may think you have closed the gap and can beat me, but I want to let you know how wrong you are!”
While Federer released one scintillating winner after another off both sides during his magical spell, Roddick reverted to his younger days and contributed to his demise with poorly produced approach shots which sat up for Federer to devour. Even worse, his low volley— which had looked much improved over the course of the tournament— let him down flagrantly. He lost his way completely while Federer was relentlessly poised and ready to answer anything. It may take Roddick quite a while to get over the overwhelming loss he endured. His record against Federer is now 1-13, but this was the worst pasting he has ever taken from the Swiss stylist.
So who is going to step forward to challenge Federer, who has not lost a match since last summer in Cincinnati against Andy Murray? It may well be Murray himself. The British No. 1 played beautifully in a five set loss to Nadal in the quarterfinals. He had already demonstrated last summer how much depth there is to his game. His anticipation is excellent, he has great feel for the tennis ball, he constructs points with great strategic acumen, and his drive to win is second to none. Furthermore, he is adding ammunition to his game. His two-handed backhand—both crosscourt and down the line— is now a much bigger shot than it was a year ago. The next step for Murray will be turning his serve into a more consistent and deceptive weapon. If and when he masters that, he will start winning his share of major titles.
Based on the way he played in Melbourne, Murray is headed fast toward the top five in the world. He should get there by the end of the year. His five set clash with Nadal was a brilliantly contested encounter and was the match of the tournament. Murray led by a set and 4-1 but that lead looked larger than it really was since he had only a one service break advantage. Nadal turned that battle around by winning five straight games to reach one set all and then recouped again after losing the third set to win 6-1 in the fifth. But he had to work inordinately hard to take that final set, saving break points in the crucial first and third games of the final set.
It seemed certain after Nadal held back Murray that he would make it to the final and take on Federer in a Grand Slam final for the third time in four major events. But it was apparent that Nadal was not himself when he went down 6-2, 6-4, 6-3 to Gonzalez. He did not have any spunk, and said later that he was injured in his upper leg and rear end. Mobility is everything to Nadal and that explains why he lost so tamely to the man from Chile. He will recover soon enough, but a worrisome pattern has developed.
Nadal and his camp must find a way for him to remain largely injury free. The end of his 2005 campaign was ruined by an injury to his left foot, which caused him to miss the 2006 Australian Open. And there were times during the second half of 2006 that he seemed hindered by lingering problems with his foot. Now he starts 2007 with his body letting him down again. He has not won a tournament since the French Open of 2006, and has not made it to a final since Wimbledon. Although he remains No. 2 in the world, he is mired in a difficult slump and needs to recover his confidence soon, in time to resume his dominant ways on clay. The next few months will be critical for the left-handed Spaniard.
Add it all up, and Federer’s chances of ruling at Roland Garros are looking much brighter, at least for the time being. If he won in Paris, Federer would record a career Grand Slam and become only the sixth man in history to realize that feat, joining Fred Perry, Don Budge, Rod Laver, Roy Emerson and Andre Agassi in that elite category. And if Federer did manage to win the French Open, he would then be off and running toward a real Grand Slam, which requires winning all four majors in a single year. That would mean Federer would need to win Wimbledon and the U.S. Open for the fourth year in a row to complete the mission, and that would require taking six majors in a row altogether.
Somehow, that notion seems preposterous. But not when you consider how well Federer handles pressure and how little opposition he has at the top of the men’s game, it is hard to discount his chances. He is not unbeatable but only an elite cast of players can seriously challenge him now. He will not beat himself. And it will be fascinating to follow Federer all through 2007 as he tries to turn the largest of historical dreams into reality.