Saturday, January 27, 2007

The Demolition Heard 'round the World

You don't tug on Superman's cape. You don't spit into the wind. You don't pull the mask off of the ol' Lone Ranger... and you don't mess around with S.W..

Understandably, workers today were busy hanging a plaque along a side wall of Rod Laver Arena. It reads: "Here lies Maria Sharapova, who on the 27th of January in the year 2007 fell victim to a natural force beyond her comprehension."

The name of that force? Serena Williams.

Oh, Serena may have looked sweet AFTER the fact, but for a little over an hour in Melbourne on Saturday she was a superbeing to be feared... and NOT denied. The tennis masses came to the Australian Open Women's final hoping for a classic match. What happened was a classic ass-kicking. A 6-1/6-2 virtual knock-out in one hour & three minutes in which Williams ran across the ring and knocked the Russian to the canvas, Mike Tyson-style, with one withering shot. Sharapova never got up.

Sure, Sharapova contributed mightily to her own demise. Her inability to right her service woes made her akin to a three-legged critter trying to cross the highway of life, but with Williams playing the tractor-trailer bearing down on her it probably didn't really matter. On this day, Serena could seemingly do no wrong. She wouldn't allow it.

In her first serve game, Sharapova set an awful tone, tossing in two double-faults and being immediately broken for 2-0. If Serena ever needed a bell to ring, the teenager surely rang it loud and clear at this moment. The title was there for the taking. Williams was off and running, and she left Sharapova in her wake.

2-0 became 3-0, then 4-0... and 5-0.

Finally, Sharapova scored her first winner with an overhead smash that hit Williams in the middle of the court. Poor, Maria. She'd only made Serena mad. Sharapova was a Dead Girl Walking... and after losing the 1st set 6-1, and then double-faulting again on the first point of the 2nd, she really wasn't even that. This day was all about Serena. With barely a pulse, the Russian lost a 40-15 advantage on her serve and was broken for 3-0. It was just matter of how bad her final epitaph -- err, I mean, the final score line -- was going to be.

Thing is, the "contest" wasn't even as close as the 6-1/6-2 numbers say it was. Of course, do we really need any more proof that numbers can lie than the fact that, as of today, Sharapova is "officially" the #1-ranked player in the world? Williams is #14. If the shell of the Supernova that was left on Laver is the "best," what's Serena?

That IS the prevailing question at the moment, isn't it?

No one else in the sport (what with Andre Agassi retired) could have done what Serena did at this Australian Open. (Well, at least no one NOT named Williams.) After arriving in Melbourne two years removed from her last title, she survived two opponents serving for the match against her, reached the final with a ranking of #81, then destroyed the new world #1 to forever make the lasting memory of what she did over the past two weeks one laced with the dominance, near-perfection and unmatched ability she showed on Saturday.

Roger Federer makes things look so easy at times that we almost take his brilliance for granted, but what Serena did to Sharapova was so physically and emphatically devestating that you couldn't help but notice and savor every shot, every intimidating glare, every this-is-MY-title act of will, every bead of sweat, tensing muscle and clenched fist's role in the in-your-face, full force, destruction. You were encouraged -- practically begged, really -- to stare at the spectacle... if you dared.

Maybe Maria should have covered her eyes, though.

And so the wild, sometimes frustrating, often exhilerating story of Richard and Oracene's youngest daughter continues. Now, we've got another improbable chapter for future generations to ponder. Melbourne '07 was Williams' eighth career slam, but this one comes two years since her last, and is the first won by an unseeded woman since it last happened at this same tournament nearly thirty years ago. And leave it to Serena, just minutes after treating us to the sight of the fierce competitor that lurks within, to also give us a glimpse of her softer side when, while trying to fight back tears, she dedicated her championship to sister Yetunde, who was murdered in September 2003.

It's at moments like this that we realize how different women's tennis is when the REAL Serena is around. But is this the REAL Serena, or just a cameo of what used to be? Either way, things have suddenly changed on the WTA tour.

The "Sharapova Scenario" never took Serena into account. Nor did the expected Justine vs. Maria slam battles for '07. How could they ever have? For all of Williams' talk of wanting to prove her doubters wrong, what else could anyone be? No one could NOT respect what she was capable of, but after the large part of three years of rarely seeing the same player who fashioned the "Serena Slam" in 2002-03, who ever could speak with any authority that THAT Serena could reappear again almost out of thin air? (I mean, I feel proud that I even brought up the possibility of a "Soul Survivor" sequel back on Day 1.)

What we DO know is that when healthy and focused, Serena is STILL the best female tennis player in the world. We also know that Sharapova has some work to do, mostly on the second serve that contributed to the worst slam defeat of her career. But what about the rest? How does Justine Henin approach a Serena with a head of steam? What about the Russians and the new wave of teenagers (speaking of, what ultimately happened in Melbourne makes Shahar Peer's down-to-the-wire QF slugfest with Serena all the more impressive in retrospect, doesn't it?)? What about Venus, who watched all of this on TV in Florida? The last time this happened, Big Sis was inspired enough to go out and win another Wimbledon.

Oh, my. What has Serena wrought? If she can manage to stay in the mix of things, the season will only get more interesting from here. A Soul Survivor once more, Williams said after the match that her "best years are still to come."

But it's better not to dwell on what COULD come next, but instead marvel at what we just saw from Serena. Again... and maybe better than ever. Indeed, one more time, the message from Melbourne was clear:

Don't Mess With Serena.

...meanwhile, #1-seeded Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova defended her Girls title with a 7-6/7-6 win over #16 Madison Brengle and, a year after Nick Lindahl came up short in the final, a fellow Aussie DID take the Boys title when unseeded Brydan Klein defeated #2 Jonathan Eysseric 6-2/4-6/6-1.

In Doubles, Bob & Mike Bryan defended their '06 crown (and won their fifth slam as a team) with a 7-5/7-5 win over Jonas Bjorkman & Max Mirnyi.

On the final day of action, the Mixed Doubles title will be determined when Victoria Azarenka & Mirnyi face off with Elena Likhovtseva & Daniel Nestor.

And, of course, the Men's final will feature Fernando Gonzalez walking into the lion's den. We'll have to wait and see if Gonzo emerges with the King of the Forest's head on the end of his racket... or without HIS OWN.

[title span]
11..Margaret Smith-Court [1960-73]
6...Nancye Wynne-Bolton [1937-51]
5...Daphne Akhurst [1925-30]
4...Evonne Goolagong [1974-77]
4...Steffi Graf [1988-94]
4...Monica Seles [1991-96]
3...Joan Hartigan [1933-36]
3...Martina Hingis [1997-99]
3...Martina Navratilova [1981-85]
3...SERENA WILLIAMS [2003-07]

NR......Evonne Goolagong, '77 Australian*
#111..Chris O'Neil, '78 Australian*
#78....Betsy Nagelson, '78 Australian
#68....Barbara Jordan, '79 Australian*
#66....Venus Williams, '97 U.S.

[slam titles]
377..Steffi Graf [22]
331..Martina Navratilova [18]
262..Chris Evert [18]
209..Martina Hingis [5]
178..Monica Seles [9]
98...Lindsay Davenport [3]
57...Serena Williams [8]
56...Justine Henin [5]
39...Amelie Mauresmo [2]
22...Tracy Austin [2]
19...Kim Clijsters [1]
17...Jennifer Capriati [2]
12...Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario [4]
11...Venus Williams [5]
Margaret Smith-Court [24]
Billie Jean King [12]
Evonne Goolagong [7]

[6 different winners]
2005 Wimbledon...Venus Williams
2005 U.S. Open...Kim Clijsters
2006 Australian Open...Amelie Mauresmo
2006 Roland Garros...Justine Henin-Hardenne
2006 Wimbledon...Amelie Mauresmo
2006 U.S. Open...Maria Sharapova
2007 Australian Open...Serena Williams


TOP PLAYER: Serena Williams
RISER: Nicole Vaidisova
SURPRISES: Yung-Jan Chan/Chai-Jung Chuang & Madison Brengle
VETERANS: Cara Black/Liezel Huber & Elena Likhovtseva
FRESH FACES: Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova & Victoria Azarenka
DOWN: Lisa Raymond/Samantha Stosur & Zi Yan/Jie Zheng

IT GIRL: Shahar Peer
COMEBACK PLAYER: Serena Williams
JUNIOR BREAKOUT: Madison Brengle
FIRST SEED OUT: #25 Anabel Medina-Garrigues
LAST QUALIFIER STANDING: (2nd Rd.) Anna Kremer, Alla Kudryavtseva, Tamira Paszek, Julia Vakulenko, Renata Voracova

All for now.


Blogger GLT said...

Serena has never been one of my favorite players, but I have to say, she impressed the heck out of me in that final. Her mental toughness is not to be denied, and when she pairs that up with a game that is clicking...well, we saw the results Friday night. I think many of the women on the WTA tour could learn a thing or two from how mentally tough Serena is...and maybe we would see less of the mentally fragile breakdowns in the first weekend of a slam.

Sun Jan 28, 02:09:00 PM EST  

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