Serena Williams needs five break points to win, but her persistence pays off and one of the dividends she earns is the confidence it give her serve, which she uses to power her way through the next game. She leads 3-0, five minutes into the women’s championship match at the U.S. Open, and it looks very much mis-‘d.
Which you would expect. Miss Williams encountered no opposition worthy of the name as she methodically worked her way through the draw at the U.S. Open, held at the USTA’s Billie Jean King National Tennis Center at Flushing Meadows, which is in Queens, the great sprawling eastern borough of the great city of New York. Since her untypical early exit at the French Open in May she has been on a roll, re-establishing herself as the dominant player she was in the last decade before injuries and illness over the past two or three years forced her to limit her engagement in the sport, as they also did her sister Venus, the other great and dominant player of the period.
With wins at Wimbledon and the Olympics and a strong hard court season leading up to the Open, Serena Williams, though seeded fourth, has every reason to be confident that this is her year, and this tournament, which draws the most attention of all the Grand Slam events, will prove it.
The final is played on Sunday due to inclement weather the day before, and it really does look like a mismatch, notwithstanding that Miss Williams’ opponent is seeded No. 1 and holds the No. 1 place in the WTA rankings. Victoria Azarenka has had an excellent tournament, notably beating Samantha Stosur in a gritty three-set quarter-final match and then out-punching Maria Sharapova in the semi-finals. She has a powerful defensive game, hits deep, but she does not move with Miss Williams’ speed and grace and rarely makes the clutch plays, the unexpected down the line backhands, for example, or the unreturnable aces, that Miss Williams can pull out of her reserves when she needs them. Unlike the American, she does not move over the court like a proud tigress — like a queen.
The sheer beauty of Serena Williams’ game can easily be missed by observers awed by her power. The clean clear form as she hits through forehands, the perfect aim — on the lines — of her quick power backhands, and even the wild shots she makes, scrambling after winners that other players would not try for, all have a grace that, admittedly, seems ill-fitted to that fierce power. That is the whole point, however, about queens, as opposed to princesses: they have both power and class. They have what we call competitive drive, they insist on winning — not, like certain kinds of princesses, on getting.
The thought occurs, while watching this match, that it offers a clue to the disparity between the match David Ferrer played against Janko Tipsarevic in the men’s quarter-finals the other day, and the semi he played yesterday against Novak Djokovic. In the former, which it is widely agreed was the best match of the tournament thus far, Ferrer played his game, the game he wanted, repeatedly going to the net, setting up opportunities to win points, building up the enthusiasm that gave him the strength and heart to go the distance, which he certainly did, winning finally in a fifth set tiebreak.
Against Djokovic, he seemed almost another man, constantly on the defensive, forced to stay on the baseline or behind it by his opponent’s relentless control of the pace and place of the points. In this match, it was Djokovic who created and seized opportunities and never missed them, and who gave almost none in return.
Yet the two best Serb players have not dissimilar games. They are rocks on the baseline, arms like pistons, superb returns-of-serve. This describes Ferrer too. What separates Djokovic from the others two is his ability to seize the initiative. The rain delay on Saturday night was in this respect lucky for him. Play was suspended with Ferrer leading 5-2 — not unusual, as Djokovic sometimes takes his time getting into his game. Ferrer finished the set quickly when match play resumed, only to find that was part of Djokovic’s plan, start fresh on a new set and get serious.
Djokovic won the next three sets, often enough encountering difficult points but never in jeopardy. Ferrer, who had every reason to expect another tough long match, was frankly stunned.
Serena is to Victoria in their first set, played before a full house at Arthur Ashe Stadium, as Novak was to David a few hours earlier in the same place, totally in control.
Then something goes wrong. She errs. And errs again. And again. Suddenly, and this is not taking anything away from Victoria Azarenka’s own much heightened level of play as afternoon turns to evening, Serena’s errors are becoming chronic and she is down 2-5. Now in this situation, it can be as nerve-wracking for the player with the lead as for the one in the hole. Tennis, they always tell you, is mental, you are playing yourself as well as your opponent (and the other day the wind too), and the for reasons no one understands completely, it is only human to suddenly ask oneself at key and critical moments: Do I really want this? Do I really want to win?
Which is why, if an aside may be allowed here, in public affairs it is well to keep in mind that you will not win with better arguments alone. That is like saying that the tennis player with the more elegant form ought to win. Why? Is sports, any more than politics, a beauty contest? This is something Republicans cannot get through their heads. Maybe I am mistaken here. But there is a reason why the Kennedy’s, the most successful political clan in recent American history, adopted Vince Lombardi’s famous quip as their own: Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.
With Miss Azarenka serving at 5-2, Miss Williams seems to be unraveling completely, but then the Belarusian champion double faults. And doubles again, to make it 30-30. No, she gets a grip on her nerves and corrects her own-goals by serving two winners in quick succession, game and set, even.
Both young women are now in an excruciating battle of wills as well as groundstrokes and volleys and serves, and it shows. But Miss Williams continues to err, and her powerful serve is not working as she wants. She gets a few aces, but she is mainly forced to use her second serve, which Miss Azarenka can return deep and cross court. Emboldened by the stakes, she plays with more aggression than usual, going to the net instead of staying back, trying to encourage Miss Williams’ own self-destruction.
Serving at 3-5 to stay in the match, Serena Williams gets the first advantage and hits a perfect backhand winner down the line, a risky shot, and holds. Here Miss Azarenka’s nerves show at last, as she repeatedly nets the returns of her serves, none especially difficult to hit back cleanly. Serving again at 5-5, Miss Williams holds easily.
Miss Azarenka gets the advantage in the next game after tense and cautious but inventive points including a sliced drop shot that Miss Williams can only reach with the tip of her racket. A superb backhand return of serve, however, evens the score at deuce. The challenger — there is no doubt Miss Azarenka is the challenger here, notwithstanding the rankings — gets another ad on a netted backhand. This is assuredly one of the most error prone great matches in U.S. Open finals history. She cannot convert. A forehand goes long and gives Miss Williams the championship point. She sends her next return of serve to the left, and Miss Azarenka’s backhand, more often than not loyal to her from the backcourt (and elsewhere) goes sailing over the line again, end.
It was more than a little roller coaster of a match, but at 6-2, 2-6, 7-5, Serena Williams has her fourth U.S. Open championship title and there can be no disputing her royalty in this field, even if, or precisely because, she allows herself to shout and scream and dance. She is a little showy: she is that way, so why not let her be? And she was nice to Victoria Azarenka who, too, showed a lot of good and happy sportsmanship at the awards ceremony. You want to win, act like a queen (or a king), and let everybody know, yourself especially, that, yes, you want to win.