Monday, September 08, 2008

Destiny's Child

After all these years, order has finally been restored to the tennis world.

The last decade of women's tennis has seen several interludes when the Belgians, Russians and Serbs became the focus of conversation. But, all along, at its core, the WTA tour has been about the Williams sisters, as much as when they've been at the top of their games as when the biggest question bouncing around the sport was they no longer were.

Nine years ago, a seventeen-year old Serena Williams shook up the original perception that her sister Venus was "the one." The sight of the younger sibling celebrating the family's first slam title after winning the U.S. Open, while the older was but a bystander in the crowd, was as unforeseen as it was awkward... to everyone but father Richard. He'd always told everyone to "watch out for Serena."

He was right. Then, he almost wasn't. But he may be again.

On Sunday night, Serena reclaimed her position atop the tennis world. What seemed like her destiny two months ago after she lost the Wimbledon final to Venus and pointed her determined stare toward North America, turned out to be just that, as Serena won her third U.S. Open title, but her first in six years, with a 6-4/7-5 victory over Jelena Jankovic in the women's final.

The match stopped just short of being a "classic," but Williams was made by Jankovic to earn her return to official prominence. The Serb refused to back down and relegate herself to mere footnote status in the final, and for over two hours the drama-loving Jankovic danced with the devil in the pale moon light. But, in the end, the chaotic sister from another planet could not hold back the tide of history that flowed in the favor of the Sister from Compton.

Over the years, as displayed ever so clearly during "Serena Slam," it's been rightly said that there's no stopping a focused and in-form Serena. At this Open, it was made clear once more. Even while not acting as a steamroller over her opponents in EVERY round, Williams managed to avoid dropping a single set coming into the final, weathering her most furious storm when Venus had seemed to manage to trap her in an inescapable corner in the quarterfinals. In the final, Jankovic was often close to pushing Serena to the limit once again but, try as the Serb might, she could only hold back the tide for so long.

In the 1st set, Jankovic broke Williams for a 2-1 lead and, as Serena's errors mounted, strung together eight straight points. Up 40/love on her own serve, Jankovic was about to solidify her early break, only to see Serena burst to life after swatting a forehand behind the Serb for her first point of the game. Four points later, Williams has secured her own break, then another to go up 4-2. She seemed to be slowly physically assuming control of the match with her power and athleticism.

But only she didn't.

Serving at 5-3, Williams fell down love/40 as Jankovic refused to concede. An error gave Jankovic the break... but the tide again proved to be too strong. Serena broke back to take the set 6-4.

The 2nd set was characterized by Williams taking leads, but Jankovic standing firm and threatening to turn the final into a... well, typically Jankovician affair. Twice, in the second and sixth games of the set, Serena held two break points on the Serb's serve, only to see Jankovic's defensive scrambles and impressive shot-making allow her to hold.

Throughout, the usual Queen Chaos fun and entertainment playfully skimmed across the surface of what was turning out to be a rather serious match between two players battling for the #1 ranking as well as the Open championship. Once, Jankovic was caught admiring her own winning lob on the Ashe Stadium replay board... and breaking into a wild smile before serving when she saw herself, entranced, staring back at her on the screen above. During changeovers, she delighted in the quick scoreboard shots of all the celebrities in the stands who were watching her take the greatest player of her generation to the edge of danger in her home country's most spectacular event.

But while Jankovic was having fun on the big stage, Williams was buckling down to once again grab her rightful share of grand slam glory. With Jankovic up 5-3, Serena saved three break points that would have forced the match to a third set. At 5-4, it took Williams six attempts to finally break Jankovic and level the match. So what if she was only 1-for-10 in break points in the set at that point, her game-winning forehand pass after having brought the backcourt-loving Jankovic close to the net with a short shot signaled that the end was near. Serena held serve to go ahead 6-5.

Jankovic saved one match point, but Williams could be restrained no longer. Serena blasted a backhand across the court... and she exploded. She flung her racket to the stars and seamlessly transitioned into a jubilant series of trampoline-like leaps that somewhat resembled the similarly gleeful uncontrolled bounding about that Venus dissolved into after winning Wimbledon in 2005.

Speaking of Venus, she was watching from the stands once again. This time, though, her smile didn't have any tinge of somewhat bittersweet happiness for her little sister. She needn't worry any longer about her legacy, what with a trophy case full of Wimbledon hardware at home and an off-court life as full as any dozen athletes combined.

Chris McGrath/Getty Images

As Serena celebrated with Richard the winning of her ninth slam singles title nine years after her first, the feeling that the tennis world had been moved backward and forward simultaneously was evident, and oh so fitting. One never knows what the future holds for the sisters, but what we've come to understand is that we should appreciate the great moments they create, whenever and wherever they occur. And this, along with the occurrences at Wimbledon and in Beijing alike this summer, was certainly one of them.

Meanwhile, the yellow-and-white clad Serbian comet that streaked across the New York skyline the past two weeks now heads to parts unknown, still slam-less but with a fortified big stage pedigree and nerve that should serve her well in the future. If Sunday night was any indication, we won't have to wait a generation for the Jelena Phenomenon to come back around again at a slam.

At the start of the post-match ceremony, Jankovic appeared quite down when she discussed her loss with interviewer Mary Carillo. But it only took her a minute to understand the allure of a live microphone being at her disposal in front of tens of thousands of fans. Practically thieving the moment from an amused Carillo, Jankovic just let her Whirling Dervish-ness spin and seemingly would have talked for an hour if Serena hadn't needed to pick up her trophy before the clock struck midnight... and the Men's final be played tomorrow afternoon.

Of course, once Carillo gave Williams her winner's check and announced how much Serena had won, Jankovic couldn't help herself. "How much did I get?," Jankovic interjected, as only she could (and probably would).

Ah, "Queen Chaos" to the end. Yep, the Divine Miss J will be fine... and maybe even better after all this.

Chris McGrath/Getty Images

But, for now, Serena Williams is the #1-ranked player in the world. Again. But for the first time since 2003. Once again, all is right with the tennis world... for a while, at least.

But why think about tomorrow when tonight is so fulfilling?

Oh, just because I like it too much to not use it in some fashion, I just wanted to mention what would have been the title and the first line of this Backspin had Jankovic actually won the final.

TITLE: "Chaos Reigns"
FIRST LINE: "To whirl is divine."

I feel better now.

...Andy Murray defeated Rafael Nadal in the unfinished Men's SF earlier in the afternoon, losing the 3rd set but closing out the world #1 in the 4th. Against Roger Federer in the final, he'll try to become the first British male to win a grand slam singles title since Fred Perry in 1936. No matter the outcome, it's become quite apparent that Murray "is no Tim."

And that's a good thing as far as the fans of British tennis are concerned. Hmmm... the All-England Club should open up Murray Mount for the occasion during the match, don't you think?

...AWARD UPDATES: Coco Vandeweghe's 7-6/6-1 win over Gabriela Paz in the Girls Singles final gives the American this Open's "It Girl" title, while Venezuela's Paz gets the "Junior Breakout" crown. the Boys final, Bulgaria's Grigor Dimitrov defeated American Devin Britton 6-4/6-3. During the CBS coverage today, John McEnroe said that his brother Patrick thinks that Dimitrov might be "another Federer." the Women's Doubles, Cara Black & Liezel Huber, the world's #1 doubles team, finally got that elusive 2008 slam title, defeating Lisa Raymond & Sam Stosur 6-3/7-6 in the final to complete the tournament without dropping a set. It's the duo's eighth title this season, and Black's second at this Open after winning the Mixed Doubles with Leander Paes.

...and, finally, the Men's singles final will be contested Monday afternoon in New York, as Roger Federer attempts to win his fifth straight Open title by defeating his fifth DIFFERENT player (but none of them have been named Nadal) in the final in Murray.

1999 Serena Williams d. Martina Hingis
2000 Venus Williams d. Lindsay Davenport
2001 Venus Williams d. Serena Williams
2002 Serena Williams d. Venus Williams
2003 Justine Henin-Hardenne d. Kim Clijsters
2004 Svetlana Kuznetsova d. Elena Dementieva
2005 Kim Clijsters d. Mary Pierce
2006 Maria Sharapova d. Justine Henin-Hardenne
2007 Justine Henin d. Svetlana Kuznetsova
2008 Serena Williams d. Jelena Jankovic

1981 Zina Garrison
1989 Jennifer Capriati
1992 Lindsay Davenport
1994 Meilen Tu
1995 Tara Snyder
2008 Coco Vandeweghe

16...Venus Williams
10...Virginia Ruano-Pascual
9...Lisa Raymond
6...Lindsay Davenport
6...Rennae Stubbs
4...Daniela Hantuchova
4...Samantha Stosur
4...Ai Sugiyama

1999 Serena Williams/Venus Williams
2000 Julie Halard-Decugis/Ai Sugiyama
2001 Lisa Raymond/Rennae Stubbs
2002 Virginia Ruano-Pascual/Paola Suarez
2003 Virginia Ruano-Pascual/Paola Suarez
2004 Virginia Ruano-Pascual/Paola Suarez
2005 Lisa Raymond/Samantha Stosur
2006 Nathalie Dechy/Vera Zvonareva
2007 Nathalie Dechy/Dinara Safina
2008 Cara Black/Liezel Huber

3...Maria Sharapova
3...Dinara Safina
3...Agnieszka Radwanska

(as of September 8)
377...Steffi Graf
331...Martina Navratilova
260...Chris Evert
209...Martina Hingis
178...Monica Seles
117...Justine Henin
98...Lindsay Davenport

TOP PLAYER: Serena Williams/USA
RISER: Jelena Jankovic/SRB
SURPRISE: Gabriela Paz Franco/VEN
VETERANS: Cara Black/Liezel Huber, ZIM/USA
FRESH FACE: Coco Vandeweghe/USA
COMEBACK: Lisa Raymond/Samantha Stosur, USA/AUS
MATCH: Women's Final - S.Williams d. Jankovic 6-4/7-5
...a rare big-stage instance where both players exit with their reputations enhanced.

#4 Serena Williams/USA def. #2 Jelena Jankovic/SRB 6-4/7-5

#6 Andy Murray/GBR vs. #2 Roger Federer/SUI

#1 Black/Huber (ZIM/USA) def. #10 Raymond/Stosur (USA/AUS) 6-3/7-6

#2 Bryan/Bryan (USA/USA) def. #7 Dlouhy/Paes (CZE/IND) 7-6/7-6

#5 Black/Paes (ZIM/IND) def. Huber/J.Murray (USA/GBR) 7-6/6-4

Coco Vandeweghe/USA def. Gabriela Paz/VEN 7-6/6-1

#3 Grigor Dimitrov/BUL def. Devin Britton/USA 6-4/6-3

#3 Noppawan Lertcheewakarn/Sandra Roma (THA/SWE) def. Mallory Burdette/Sloane Stephens (USA/USA) 6-0/6-2

Nikolaus Moser/Cedrik-Marcel Stebe (AUT/GER) def. #2 Henri Kontinen/Christopher Rungkat (FIN/INA) 7-6/3-6/10-8

07 FINAL: Davenport def. Hantuchova
08 TOP: Hantuchova/Schnyder

Peng d. Groenefeld
Petrova d. Schnyder

Petrova d. Peng

...I had picked Li Na here but, of course, she's pulled out of the event. Groenefeld lost her tough 1st Round match with Paszek, too. But I left her in the prediction. With my options now limited, I guess I'll roll the dice, and go with Nadia.

07 FINAL: Russia def. Italy

Russia (Kuznetsova, Zvonareva, Makarova & Vesnina) def. Spain (Medina-Garrigues, Suarez-Navarro, Llagostera-Vives, Ruano-Pascual)

...even with the home court advantage, it's hard to pick against the Russians. I'll say either 3-2 or 4-1, with the final doubles match possibly being an afterthought after a quick 3-0 or 3-1 Hordette lead early on.

TOP QUALIFIERS: Yaroslava Shvedova/KAZ & Barbora Zahlavova-Strycova/CZE
TOP EARLY ROUND (1r-2r): Venus Williams/USA
TOP MIDDLE-ROUND (3r-QF): Serena Williams/USA
TOP LATE ROUND (SF-F): Serena Williams/USA
TOP QUALIFYING MATCH: Q3: #15 Olaru/ROU def. #22 Larcher de Brito/POR 6-2/6-3
TOP EARLY RD. MATCH (1r-2r): 2nd Rd. - #2 Jankovic/SRB def. Arvidsson/SWE 6-3/6-7/7-5
TOP MIDDLE-RD. MATCH (3r-QF): QF - #4 S.Williams/USA def. #7 V.Williams/USA 7-6/7-6
TOP LATE RD. MATCH (SF-F): Final - #4 S.Williams/USA def. #2 Jankovic/SRB 6-4/7-5
FIRST SEED OUT: #24 Shahar Peer/ISR (1st Rd.-Li Na)
LAST QUALIFIER STANDING: Anna-Lena Groenefeld/GER (4th Rd.)
IT GIRL: Coco Vandeweghe/USA
MS. OPPORTUNITY: Jelena Jankovic/SRB
COMEBACK PLAYER: Anna-Lena Groenefeld/GER
CRASH & BURN: #1 Ana Ivanovic/SRB (lost 2nd Rd to #188 Coin)
ZOMBIE QUEEN: Jelena Jankovic/SRB (7:36 on court in first four matches)

All for now. More tomorrow.

THIS WEEK: Odds & Ends Between New York & Doha, Ms. Backspin Update and 3Q Awards


Blogger Colette Lewis said...

Paz is Paz, not Paz Franco. The ITF site is correct, the WTA and US Open data base is incorrect.

Mon Sep 08, 09:59:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Todd Spiker said...

Thanks, Colette. I changed that on this post.

Weird. I wonder if there was some thinking behind that (a parent named Franco?) or if it was just wrong plain and simple?

Though, I have noticed in the past that WTA and ITF names for some players aren't always in sync.

Mon Sep 08, 03:40:00 PM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You can never know how serena would have faired if henin was still around (same goes for the serbians), but to say that the order has been restored is a little too much. I really hate it how some people are putting down everyone else but the Williams Sisters. tennis exsisted before them, and will long after their careers are over. had it been their way, the tour would have 10-12 tournaments, as they play the schedule as they see fit. the generation change is happening, and it is not our fault that in the new generation of tennis players, the americans are simply not exsiting. so, lay off serbians and lay off the belgians.

Mon Sep 08, 03:54:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Todd Spiker said...

Well, considering I whole-heartedly supported Henin the last few years, and have always been supportive of the Serbs (especially Jankovic in recent weeks), I don't think I'd now be putting down the Serbs or the Belgians. But I can see how it might have come off that way in this Backspin.

The "order" I was referring to is a relative term, more along the lines that six years ago there was little debate about who was the best player on tour. Now, that same player is once again #1 in the rankings. It's some sort of "order once removed," but it's also very likely temporary.

I think it's just that extolling the virtues of one player tends to make it seem like the others are being slighted, even if that's not the intention. Still, even while Henin was dominating and I was a great fan of her career, even I could acknowledge during that period that a fully healthy, focused and in-form Serena was still the most talented player on tour. But part of being a champion IS taking full advantage of one's gifts, and she hasn't always been able or willing to do so. Henin certainly was, though.

At the moment, Serena is, too... and she's risen to the top again. How long that lasts is anyone's guess.

If we could have seen every single one of the top players in recent years at the peak of their games at the same time it would have been a remarkable thing to witness. But very rarely does such a thing become a reality. Even in rivalries like Evert/Navratilova and Federer/Nadal, one of the two was/has been generally considered the "best" at certain times.

I agree that tennis coverage often tends to be too American-centric, even when the players aren't good enough to deserve the attention. That's why I always try to talk about everyone, from everywhere, here.

Mon Sep 08, 04:59:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Eric said...

whoa. i didn't think that Todd said anything negative about the serbians or the belgians. i think todd's point about order being restored is that when you have an individual with 8 grand slam titles and is still challenging for more, and the current no. 1 only has 1 and goes out in the second feels like the ranking is a sham and that it doesn't hold much water.

and don't you think that it says a lot that 5 years removed from the williams sister domination era, the williams sisters are still on top or in contention everywhere they play, even with the generation changes...that means that they weathered the old generation (seles, spirlea, graff, sanchez vicario, hingis), dominated their contemporaries (capriati, davenport, russians, belgians) and contend with the new generation (sharapova, ivanovic, jankovic, safina)...

the williams sisters keep saying that they have improved, but i personally don't see it that way. i feel like the supporting cast has improved and adjusted their games to be able to play with the Williams Sisters...and yet, the sisters get the best of them most of the time...

i mean, it's really telling that serena keeps saying that she feels like she has a new career...i think that after the serena slam, life happened and she developed other interests, which is only natural for a young adult to do -- especially when their whole life has been devoted to one thing. Combined with her sister's death and easy competition and injuries, it's easy to see why there would be a kind of lull in her results from lack of motivation. I mean look at henin now...she didn't want to damage her legacy like serena and venus did so she retired. but her reasons are happened. And now, Serena is interested in playing again b/c it actually takes effort to win matches (there's probably also some sense of personal glory and accomplishing everything she can before her athletic clock runs out...)...but ultimately, she still wins them.

Mon Sep 08, 05:12:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Eric said...

Todd, you beat me to it!

i must have been composing while you were posting.

thanks for all the great posts!

Mon Sep 08, 05:19:00 PM EDT  
Blogger mjgrace22 said...

I didn't think Todd was putting anyone down... and let's admit it, the order has really been restored!

Mon Sep 08, 10:17:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Diane said...

As you can imagine, I was a wreck watching this match. As one of the seemingly few (but I am in very good company) who really believed Jelena could win it and would win it, I was appalled that she blew her chances to take it to a third set.

More objectively, though (is that possible?), it was a very exciting match, and Serena--as always--is a great champion.

Mon Sep 08, 10:33:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Todd Spiker said...

You know, Diane, as I sort of hinted at in this post, I really think Jankovic leaves this tournament with her hopes of eventually winning a slam title improved. I know you called her loss heartbreaking, but I was actually sort of encouraged by it all... sort of like I'd imagine Murray has to feel after losing to Federer today.

She handled herself extremely well Sunday night, something which I wasn't completely sure she'd do, considering what happened to her in the SF in '06 against Henin. Sure, a case can be made that she allowed her focus to wander with all the looking at the scoreboard screen... but she was just being herself, and that sort of thing probably kept her from getting tight, for the most part.

Against most other players, I think she WOULD have won this match. And I surely didn't think she'd get that close to winning this tournament two weeks ago. She knows how close she came here, and now there's little doubt that she CAN win a slam. As long as Henin stays retired, I'd already call her an early favorite in Paris in '09... and picking her to win would be a serious prediction, unlike the semi-loopy one it was when I picked her to win there before Roland Garros this year. :)

Mon Sep 08, 11:34:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Diane said...

I agree, Todd. She's come a long way since the Henin debacle, and--as you may have noted on one of my blog comments--I also agree that looking at the TV screen and all that is just part of how she copes with the moment. Her health is the key, and this new trainer seems to be providing her a lot of guidance.

Good health and continued work on the serve should put her in a position to get a big one. I saw how tough she really was when I watched her win that championship in Charleston during post-tornado winds. I mean, stuff was blowing all over the stands and the court, and the wind direction was changing constantly. It made Safina crazy, but JJ just spun the ball into the court, over and over.

Tue Sep 09, 01:01:00 AM EDT  
Blogger leia said...

Wow, I really loved this post - especially from a JJ fan. And I know you love her, Todd. =D

And I agree with you, I think this final match gave JJ that rock-solid belief that she could win a Slam and that she IS a great player.

It's like we're psychic (or something) after the match - "JJ could win RG next year" kept running through my head. It's the slam where I think she has great chances of winning - simply because her game's really good for clay courts. Go JJ!

I'm also happy that Serena's #1. I think that while it was good that Henin's absence made the other girls strive more to reach the top spot, most of them who did reach it wasn't quite ready for it, especially JJ. Serena is such a great player that I think her presence will push the other girls to raise their level. It would make for better women's tennis, I'd like to think.

Tue Sep 09, 06:30:00 AM EDT  

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