Saturday, January 31, 2009

The Theory of Serenativity

What happens when the same person is both an unstoppable force and an irresistible object?

Well, for one, you get the 2009 Australian Open women's singles final between Serena Williams and Dinara Safina. Just call it the relative "Theory of Serena." "Serena-tivity," if you will.

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This match lined up beforehand as a battle not only for a slam crown, but also for the WTA's top ranking between the numbers two and three players in the world. But after a few moments, that was thrown out the window. It wasn't about that at all.

It was simply about Serena.

The only thing that mattered was that Williams was playing in a grand slam final, and except for a few rare instances in which her sister (two times, nearly seven years apart) was on the other side of the net or the birth of a Supernova was at hand (Wimbledon '04), that's a natural phenomenon that no one has been able to contain.

This match was never close. Not even for a moment, as Safina learned just how Maria Sharapova felt in the '07 Australian final when Serena ended her magical run that year by putting a painful beating on the Russian. Here, up 1-0, Williams pulverized a 100mph-plus Safina 1st serve for an easy winner... and the feeling of "uh-oh, here we go again" was evident.

It was soon 2-0 Williams after Safina had thrown in three double-faults in the game. Serena then held at love for 3-0. Then came 4-0. 5-0. 6-0. In the 22-minute set, Williams allowed just two points on her serve and had a 100% 1st serve win percentage.

Here's where the "Serenativity" comes into play, as Williams' quest to find her "A+" game at this tournament came to fruition at the worst possible time for her Russian counterpart. When Serena's play is at this level, she essentially renders everyone in the arena an awed spectator... including her opponent. As is often the case when Serena and Venus play their attacking doubles game, just the threat of being "run over" induces shots to go long or be wildly sprayed as the opposing player's mechanics go out of whack due to a simple desire to survive the onslaught. They try to do too much too soon too quickly, and only end up speeding up the pace of their ultimate demise.

That's what happened with Safina, who'd already gotten off on a wrong foot, then pretty much found herself shoved down and stepped on by a title-hungry Williams. It's likely Safina wouldn't have wanted to know after the 1st set that coming into the match Serena was 34-0 in Melbourne after taking the first stanza, or that she'd won forty-four straight slam matches when she'd done so. Not that it would have mattered much if she had.

Safina's play DID improve in the 2nd set. A little. She broke Williams to open the set, but was immediately broken back. The pressure of Serena's deep returns could not be answered. The ├╝ber champion of women's tennis was not going to be denied, even by a player who's made a living pulling off comeback wins since last spring. Safina double-faulted on break point to give Williams a 3-1 lead, and the race to the finish line was on. She finally got her first service hold of the match at 4-2, then held again for 5-3. But Serena was never going to grant Safina yet another tennis life. She served out the match for a 6-0/6-3 win.

For her part, Safina took things as much in stride as could be expected. She later noted that Serena had pretty much turned her into one of the ball kids for the match, and said she didn't really have much to say in the post-match ceremony since she "wasn't even on the court for an hour."

As is the case every time Serena shines so brightly in the last women's match at a grand slam, afterward it's time to read off her latest list of achievements. This was her tenth career slam championship (in thirteen finals), and she's now 4-0 in finals in Melbourne, tying the record for the most Open Era titles in Australia. With the '08 U.S. Open title also under her belt, this completes her first back-to-back slam sweep since she won four consecutive during "Serena Slam" in 2002-03 (the Williams family has won three straight, and is 30-1 against the rest of the tour in slams since last year's Wimbledon), making her the first woman to win two straight since Justine Henin pulled off the same U.S./Oz combo in 2003-04, ending a tour-record run of nineteen straight slams without the stringing together of two consecutive titles by the same woman. On Monday, Williams will find herself ranked #1 once again, kicking off her sixty-second week in the position, and this time she assumes the top spot also knowing that she's now won more prize money than any other female athlete in any other sport in history (Annika Sorenstam is now #2).

Williams' last two slam wins were immediately followed by several months of inactivity, battles with injury and/or a lack of interest in maintaining her slam title momentum. But with a shot to reclaim and retain her dominant place in the game setting up like a short ball in the frontcourt, anything is possible. Her season still could quickly head south, for sure, but without Henin around in Paris it's not out of the question to at least entertain fanciful thoughts of her making a run at single-season Grand Slam (which would give her five straight slam titles, one off Martina Navratilova's record of six from 1983-84.

In the post-match ceremony, Serena talked and talked and said she wanted to talk some more. She might get the chance, too. For once again, at least for a while, the WTA tour has been turned into "SerenaLand."

Serena's the best in the world (again), and the best of her generation (still). But that's not all. At this point, the few remaining greats still looking down at her from their exalted historical perches are most definitely getting antsy, as well.

...Safina is getting a little TOO adept at these second-place finishes. First, she did it at Roland Garros, then the trend picked up steam with a Silver Medal in Beijing. In 2009, it's like a runaway train: she's been a runner-up at the Hopman Cup, then again in both Sydney and Melbourne.

...Ksenia Pervak became the latest Hordette to win a junior slam crown, defeating Laura Robson in the Girls final 6-3/6-1.

AO: Madison Brengle, USA
RG: Mariana Duque-Marino, COL
WI: Urszula Radwanska, POL
US: Kristina Kucova, SVK
AO: Jessica Moore, AUS & Arantxa Rus, NED
RG: Simona Halep, ROU & Elena Bogdan, ROU
WI: Laura Robson, GBR
US: Gabriela Paz, VEN
AO: Ksenia Pervak, RUS

...meanwhile, Christina McHale's mostly star-crossed Aussie Open ended on a good note, as she won the Girls Doubles title with Croatia's Ajla Tomljanovic.

...the "Doubles Star" award comes down to the winner of the Mixed final, which pits Sania Mirza (w/ Mahesh Bhupathi) against Nathalie Dechy (w/ Andy Ram).

AO: Liezel Huber, RSA
RG: Katarina Srebotnik SLO
WI: Cara Black, ZIM
US: Nathalie Dechy, FRA
AO: Alona & Kateryna Bondarenko, UKR
RG: Anabel Medina-Garrigues & Virginia Ruano-Pascual, ESP
WI: Samantha Stosur, AUS
US: Cara Black, ZIM

...the great five-set, 5:14 record-setting Nadal/Verdasco Men's SF -- which took up nearly half a day of ESPN2 coverage between live action and replays -- was actually the lead story on ESPN's 6pm SportsCenter on Friday. Of course, when Verdasco was referred to as "Hector" -- Fernando's lost-long twin, perhaps? -- during the highlights package any positive style points the network gained from giving the sport its due were lost. You just can't make this stuff up.

...and, finally, after his next opponent has played two short QF and SF matches, and had an extra day off, Nadal will have to emerge from a phone booth (if he can even find one these days, that is) and become "SuperRafa" to be at his very best in the final. After all, I hear that Eugene Federer can be a tough out.

24...Margaret Smith-Court
22...Steffi Graf
19...Helen Wills-Moody
18...Martina Navratilova
18...Chris Evert
12...Billie Jean King
12...Suzanne Lenglen

2004 Roland Garros - Anastasia Myskina
...MP down vs. Kuznetsova in 4th Round
2005 Australian - Serena Williams
...MP down vs. Sharapova in SF
2005 Roland Garros - Justine Henin
...MP down vs. Kuznetsova in 4th Round
2005 Wimbledon - Venus Williams
...MP down vs. Davenport in Final
2007 Australian - Serena Williams
...Petrova (3rd Rd.) and Peer (QF) served for match
2007 Wimbledon - Venus Williams
...Kudryavtseva 2 points from win in 1st Round; Morigami served for match in 3rd Round
2009 Australian - Serena Williams
...Kuznetsova served for match in QF

Australian Open (4): 2003, 2005, 2007, 2009
Roland Garros (1): 2002
Wimbledon (2): 2002, 2003
U.S. Open (3): 1999, 2002, 2008

0...1st Round
1...2nd Round
7...3rd Round
4...4th Round

#2 S.Williams/USA def. #3 Safina/RUS

#1 Nadal/ESP vs. #2 Federer/SUI

#10 Williams/Williams (USA/USA) def. #9 Hantuchova/Sugiyama (SVK/JPN)

#2 Bryan/Bryan (USA/USA) def. #3 Bhupathi/Knowles (IND/BAH)

Dechy/A.Ram (FRA/ISR) vs. Mirza/Bhupathi (IND/IND)

#3 Ksenia Pervak/RUS def. #5 Laura Robson/GBR

#1 Yuki Bhambri/IND def. Alexandro-Ferdinandos Georgoudas/GER

#6 Christina McHale/Ajla Tomljanovic (USA/CRO) def. Alexandra Krunic/Sandra Zaniewska (SRB/POL)

#7 Francis Casey Alcantara/Hsieh Cheng-Peng (PHI/TPE) def. Mikhal Biryukov/Yasutaka Uchiyama (RUS/JPN)

TOP EARLY ROUND (1r-2r): Dominika Cibulkova/SVK
TOP MIDDLE-ROUND (3r-QF): Elena Dementieva/RUS
TOP LATE ROUND (SF-F): Serena Williams/USA
TOP QUALIFYING MATCH: Q3: Stephanie Dubois/CAN d. Urszula Radwanska/POL 6-4/6-4
TOP EARLY RD. MATCH (1r-2r): 2nd Rd: Suarez-Navarro d. V.Williams 2-6/6-3/7-5 (1 MP)
TOP MIDDLE-RD. MATCH (3r-QF): 4th Rd: Safina d. Cornet 6-2/2-6/7-5 (2 MP)
TOP LATE RD. MATCH (SF-F): SF: Safina d. Zvonareva 6-3/7-6
FIRST SEED OUT: #23 Agnes Szavay/HUN (1st Rd.- Voskoboeva/KAZ)
LAST QUALIFIERS STANDING: Elena Baltacha/GBR, Alberta Brianti/ITA, Sesil Karatantcheva/BUL-KAZ (2nd Round)
IT GIRL: Carla Suarez-Navarro/ESP
CRASH & BURN: Venus Williams/USA (lost in 2nd Rd.)
ZOMBIE QUEEN: Dinara Safina/RUS (down 2-5 in 3rd, & 2 MP to Cornet in 4th Rd.)

All for now. More tomorrow.


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