Saturday, January 30, 2010

Real Champions Wear Combat Boots

"It's gotta be the shoes!" - Mars Blackmon

In recent years, women's tennis has so often seemed to be all about footwear. No, I'm not talking about anyone donning a pair of red pumps or stylish flats in a photo shoot, I'm talking about having to so often watch not-quite-champion players sport "shoe-envying" games that, under pressure, display enough fundamental "don't's" that they threaten to forever cause their designer to be deemed to have "poor fashion sense" ON the court. For every Oudin-esque pair of sneakers with "Believe" on their sides, there have been seemed to be two or more pairs of lead shoes clunking around the courts of the WTA (we call those puppies "Safinas") in the late stages of the four most important events of the season.

The fact of the matter is that REAL champions where boots. Not the shiny go-go variety that Serena Williams stunned the sport with at the U.S. Open a while back, though. COMBAT boots. You know, the kind of footwear that doesn't need messages stamped on the side to remind anyone what the task at hand truly is. One look at them and any opponent knows they're in for a fight to the death. In a bit of too-good-to-be-true irony, it's Williams who owns the most intimidating pair of steel-toed head-stompers, too.

A few days ago, Victoria Azarenka wasn't up to the challenge, ever after achieving some early victories. Li Na, as well, put up an honorable fight, but one that was also a losing battle in the end. If a player is to TRULY challenge Williams, she has to be willing to slog through the rice patties of a stifling grand slam final to do it. For that, you need Justine Henin.

In an Australian Open final that pitted the two best players of the past decade (and maybe their generation) against one another for the fourteenth time, but for the first time in a grand slam final, no wry "phonies" were allowed. None showed up, either. Before the match, Henin called the match-up the "perfect challenge," while Williams dubbed it a "defining moment." Battlelines were drawn. With the women's game's two most hard-nosed, irrepressible icons facing off, with the backdrop of their past slam meetings (from the '03 "wave-off" to Henin's QF X 3 dismissing of Serena in '07) providing context, the potential for a memorable conflict was apparent.

What developed was a clash that, while maybe not a "classic," was an admirable, solid scuffle that turned on but a few key moments. All the while throughout the two-plus hour contest, while the American sought to carve out an even bigger place in history for herself by becoming the winningest AO champion of the Open Era, the Belgian, still freshly back from her twenty-month "visionquest" of a retirement (Henin was in the Congo at this time last year when WIlliams was wining her fourth Oz title), was doing what she's always seemingly been assigned to do -- buck the long odds against her attaining a goal that maybe even she who has always reached so high didn't TOTALLY believe was possible even a month ago. In the end, the resulting three-setter was the first women's slam final to go the distance since the 2006 Wimbledon.

As the match began, Williams immediately signalled her bad intentions with a first point ace. But Henin didn't wilt. In short order, she had two break point opportunities in a game that became an early point of order for the women's final. After a four-deuce, eight-minute game, Serena held when Henin netted a backhand. The Belgian's missed opportunity would be an overriding theme for the opening set. In Williams' second service game, a net cord bounce on Henin's second serve return gave her another break point. Williams erased it with an ace. After another long (five-deuce) game, keyed by Henin's commitment to being aggressive and stepping inside the court to take shots at Williams' second serves, the American once again managed to hold for a 2-1 lead. After again failing to secure a break, Henin soon had her first double-fault of the match to fall behind 0/30. A wide Henin forehand broke her serve at love and gave Williams a 3-1 advantage.

In the next game, Henin again jumped out to a 40/15 lead on Serena's serve. Up 40/30, Henin's backhand volley seemingly clipped a line and Williams' backhand sailed long. Henin went to her chair for the changeover thinking she'd gotten the set back on serve, but the linesperson's initial "in" call on Henin's shot had been only seconds later changed by the official to "out." A replay confirmed the "out" call, and the game went on. Williams got the game to deuce and, as Henin stood at 0-for-5 in break point opportunities, Williams held for a 4-1 lead. With the crowd at least momentarily on her side, two games later, Henin once again challenged Williams' serve. The Belgian went up 40/15, and hit a forehand winner to convert her first of seven break point chances and get the set on serve at 3-4. After both players held at love, serving at 4-5, Henin hit a second serve ace up the "T" when down 0/15, then had another ace when down 15/30. But a double-fault on the next point gave Serena a set point. Henin saved it with a big serve, but a long backhand gave Williams another shot. Henin's backhard error, a wide bounce off the net cord, handed the set to Williams at 6-4.

With Williams entering with a 40-0 record in Australian Open matches (and 163-3 in all slams) after winning the 1st set, the final result would have seemed a fait accompli at that point. But Henin wasn't about to let history get in the way of her own attempt to make it.

In the opening game of the 2nd set, Serena held serve with an ace, but Henin's continued aggression finally began to force Williams into errors. Henin broke her at love with a winner on a setter Serena volley to grab a 2-1 lead. But in the next game, Serena went up 40/15 on the Belgian's serve and gained a break when Henin netted her return of a deep Williams groundstroke. 2-2. Two games later, Henin overcame a break point to hold for 3-3 after running Serena wide to one side and hitting a winner down the line on the other. Having survived there, Henin turned the set in her favor in the next game.

Serving up 30/0, the timing on Williams' second serve was so off that the ball sailed toward the baseline and wasn't that far away from Henin's feet. Perhaps sensing a crack in Williams' line of defense, the Belgian raised her game and would lose just one point the rest of the set. She hit a stinging backhand down the line past an approaching Serena in the next point, then a well-placed corner shot forced Williams to spray a return long. After a Williams ace, Henin scrambled to make two volleys to get a break point, then her assault on a second serve forced a Serena error and gave Henin a 4-3 lead. In the next game, she held at love with three groundstroke winners and a service winner, then carried her masterful run into Williams' service game. An overhead winner. A second serve winner. Suddenly, every shot was working. Henin broke Serena at love, taking the last ten points of the set (and 15/18) while winning four straight games to win 6-3.

In the 3rd, Henin's point streak was extended to fifteen until she finally netted a return in the second game of the set. The Belgian had pushed her game to another level, and the question was whether the American was going to respond in kind. Ummm, was that really a question?

Down 15/40 at 0-1 after a failied serve-and-volley attempt, Williams pounded an ace up the service "T." Moments later, another ace held serve for 1-1. In the next game, Serena broke Henin's serve when the Belgian netted a backhand volley. But anything Serena could do, Henin tried to do better. It worked, for a moment. She went up 40/0 on Williams' serve at 1-2, then attacked a second serve and got the break with a forehand crosscourt winner. 2-2. In the proceeding game, an Henin double-fault was followed by a pulverizing backhand winner by Williams off a second serve to get a break point. A long Henin backhand put Serena up 3-2 with the third straight service break of the set.

With the championship in her sight, Wililams took her game up one more notch. This time, Henin couldn't follow.

After having an ace on game point overruled by replay, Serena promptly stepped to the service line... and blasted a second serve ace instead, then did a clenched-fist-while-leaping-in-the-air celebration for added emphasis. If it's a big point, you want Serena's serve. She led 4-2, and had won 80% of her first serve points in the set, compared to 44% for Henin. Williams stood at 2-for-2 in break points in the 3rd, while Henin was 1-of-5. The numbers would bear out as the final result neared.

An Henin double-fault gave Williams a 30/15 lead, then she wasn't able to successfully pull off a backhand half-volley of a Serena running crosscourt backhand at her feet. A long Henin backhand off a deep service return moved Williams to a 5-2 lead with a third straight break of the Belgian's serve. Then, just four points from another grand slam title, Williams was not to be denied.

Again, she blew an ace up the middle on the first point. She did it again on the third (her twelfth of the match). Two points later, a Williams backhand shot to the corner was out of the reach of a scrambling Henin and it was all over. Serena flung her racket behind her, fell flat on her back and covered her face with her hands, then clenched and raised her fists above her head. She'd done it yet again.

Williams def. Henin 6-4/3-6/6-2.

When Henin left the game twenty-one months ago, we knew what we'd lost. But in getting to that point, she lost more. Her heart. Her desire. Maybe even her sense of self. In retrospect, her string of uninspired losses in the early months of '08 foreshadowed what happened on May 14. That said, her perfectly "La Petit Taureau"-esque moments in the twelve matches she's played in her comeback so far in 2010 serve to provide public anecdotes that her a-little-more-frequent smile and talk of feeling more self-aware and in control of her life ARE evidence of an Henin who is, at once, both different, in her game style and personal interactions, but also largely the same when it comes to being able to find additional reserviors of will where most players (Serena excluded) would have long since been only kicking at dry earth.

Henin, just like Williams, wears combat boots, too. They're a little scuffed tonight, but I think most are pretty confident that she'll have them shined up, looking even better than new as this season moves along.

At the end of the 2:07 match, it was apparent that Henin had been up for the promised battle, but so was the fact that Serena was carrying the biggest weapon when the two faced off in the day's most important moments. Early on, Henin's choice to attempt to impose her new in-point aggression into the proceedings caused her to overplay some of her break point opportunities. Later, her serve wasn't quite able to hold the line of defense against Serena in the 3rd set, as Henin's tactics to avoid double-faults and maintain a higher 1st serve percentage -- largely by going for serves up the middle over the low portion of the net -- made her a tad too predictable and giving Williams a chance to pounce in important moments. Meanwhile, Williams' serve, as usual, was often her best, and most successful, bail-out option when things got tough. Henin never retreated in the face of such an overwhelming force, but neither did Williams. The American took "Melbourne Hill," preventing Henin's slam-title-in-two-events improvised battleplan from becoming reality, but it's Williams' own "second time around" dominance at the slams that is promising to provide only further depth to her career legacy.

Serena, after her first Aussie Open title in an even-numbered year, has now won three of the last five slam titles, and four of six back to the '08 U.S. Open (she's been in five of the last seven finals). Career slam win #12 ties her with Billie Jean King on the all-time list, with the likes of Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert both a not-as-distant-as-it-might-seem six slams away in the historical pecking order. She needed this win over Henin, though, to solidify her standing. Other than defeating Henin at a hard court or clay slam, only taking down Venus at Wimbledon can really be used as a true barometer of just how to rate Serena's in-the-moment accomplishments at this point. When she's in fine form, no one but those two can touch her... and even they would likely lose more often than they'd win. Hopefully, this won't be the last time Serena is forced to rise up to the challenge of the willfull Belgian in a slam final... such moments can only bring out the best in her, Justine and women's tennis, in general.

"Please baby, pleasebaby, please baby, baby baby please!" - Mars

Thus, ladies and gentlemen, the winner, and still champ-eeeen. Soul Sister #1 and Melbourne's ultimate survivor. I give you... the one and only, Miss Serena Williams.

...this is the sixth time in her career that Serena has swept the singles and doubles titles at a slam, and the second straight Australian Open (not to mention third in the last five slams). She now has twenty-five overall slam titles in her career, with six of the twelve slam singles wins (and all five AO titles) coming in "from the brink" fashion (see list below).

During her on-court address to the crowd after the match, at the last moment, Williams made a point to throw in that her win was a "real G moment," a not-so-subtle bit of business housekeeping for her sponsors at Gatorade. Some will surely, and maybe legitimately, denigrate the move as a touch to commercially crass... but my first instinct was to wonder if this was the beginning of what will turn out to be an "I'm going to Disneyland"-style bit of promotion that will soon become a "traditional" end to many sporting events. Afterall, the Gatorade showers on the sidelines HAVE sort of become passe.

With the Aussie Open doubles title in hand, might Venus and Serena be starting what could turn out to be "Sisters Slam" year in doubles? Last year, they won three of the four slams, only missing out at Roland Garros. After winning her singles title, Serena apparently made a little "now I have to find a way to get me some Roland Garros titles," or something to that effect, comment to Mary Joe Fernandez. She was talking about singles, which she hasn't won in Paris since "Serena Slam" in 2002, but either way a win on the red clay could be large step toward some truly brilliant accomplishments being in play come the U.S. Open.

...Karolina Pliskova defeated Laura Robson in the Girls final to become the first Czech junior Girls slam champion since Barbora Zahlavova-Strycova won the AO junior title in 2003 (Nicole Vaidisova was RU a year later). Robson lost in the final last season to Ksenia Pervak.

...and, finally, what was the point of Fernandez sitting courtside during the Williams/Henin match, anyway? Unlike as is often the case with Pam Shriver, she interviewed no one during the match, made few observations that couldn't have been made from the booth, and the one time she DID report something uniquely heard/seen/felt from her vantage point she seemed to entirely misread the crowd reaction. In the game in the 1st set in which an Henin shot on a break point opportunity was initially called good, but then quickly changed by the linesperson (Henin has already sat down for the changeover, not hearing the correction), MJF was asked why some of the crowd was booing after Henin missed a shot that had allowed Serena to get the game back to deuce. Fernandez said that the booing must be because the Belgian had uttered an audible obscenity after losing the point, but I wondered at the time whether it was really because fans were still displeased about the call reversal, which had now led to the erasing of Henin's lead in the game. When Williams won the game that Henin had earlier thought she'd claimed, the grumbling in the stands was even louder. At that point, MJF noted that fans were upset about Henin losing a game and that they were obviously pulling for HER rather than Williams at that moment. Maybe MJF's initial take on the murmurs was correct, but the tone of that brief period of the match (similar to the "wave off" of Henin in that '03 RG match, after which the crowd went against Serena, who was actually in the right) at that specific moment, and a short time later, makes me wonder. Could she have actually not been able to read the crowd when the feelings seemed obvious from a distance? I guess we'll never really know.

[Williams leads 8-6]
2001 US Open 4th Rd. - Williams 7-5/6-0
2001 WTA Chsp QF - Williams 6-3/7-6
2002 Berlin Final - Henin 6-2/1-6/7-6
2002 Rome Final - Williams 7-6/6-4
2002 Leipzig SF - Williams 6-4/6-2
2003 Charleston Final - Henin 6-3/6-4
2003 Roland Garros SF - Henin 6-2/4-6/7-5 ("The Wave-Off" match)
2003 Wimbledon SF - Williams 6-3/6-2
2007 Miami Final - Williams 0-6/7-5/6-3 (Henin w/ 2 MP)
2007 Roland Garros QF -Henin 6-4/6-3
2007 Wimbledon QF - Henin 6-4/3-6/6-3
2007 U.S. Open QF - Henin 7-6/6-1
2008 Miami QF - Williams 6-2/6-0
2010 Australian Open Final - Williams 6-4/3-6/6-2

AO: Kim Clijsters held 2 MP in SF
AO: Maria Sharapova held 3 MP in SF
AO: Nadia Petrova (3rd Rd.) & Shahar Peer (QF) served for match
AO: Svetlana Kuznetsova served for match in QF
WI: Elena Dementieva held MP in SF
AO: Victoria Azarenka led 6-4/4-0, served for match twice in QF

24...Margaret Smith-Court, AUS
22...Steffi Graf, GER
19...Helen Wills-Moody, USA
18...Martina Navratilova, CZE/USA
18...Chris Evert, USA
12...Billie Jean King, USA

4...Margaret Smith-Court, AUS
4...Evonne Goolagong-Cawley, AUS
4...Monica Seles, YUG/USA
4...Steffi Graf, GER

25...SERENA WILLIAMS [12/11/2]
20...Venus Williams [7/11/2]
11...Virginia Ruano Pascual [0/10/1]
9...Lisa Raymond [0/5/4]
8...Cara Black [0/5/3] - to play Mixed final

1st Round: 0
2nd Round: 1
3rd Round: 7
4th Round: 4
Quarterfinals: 11
Semifinals: 3
Runner-Up: 3
Champion: 12
=[AO Finals]=
2003 Serena Williams def. Venus Williams
2005 Serena Williams def. Lindsay Davenport
2007 Serena Williams def. Maria Sharapova
2009 Serena Williams def. Dinara Safina
2010 Serena Williams def. Justine Henin
=[Slam Titles]=
Australian Open: 2003,2005,2007,2009,2010
Roland Garros: 2002
Wimbledon: 2002,2003,2009
U.S. Open: 1999,2002,2008

1999 U.S. Open
2002 Wimbledon
2003 Australian Open
2009 Australian Open
2009 Wimbledon
2010 Australian Open

1999 Virginie Razzano def. Katarina Basternakova
2000 Aniko Kapros def. Maria Jose Martinez-Sanchez
2001 Jelena Jankovic def. Sofia Arvidsson
2002 Barbora Zahlavova-Strycova def. Maria Sharapova
2003 Barbora Zahlavova-Strycova def. Viktoriya Kutuzova
2004 Shahar Peer def. Nicole Vaidisova
2005 Victoria Azarenka def. Agnes Szavay
2006 Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova def. Caroline Wozniacki
2007 Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova def. Madison Brengle
2008 Arantxa Rus def. Jessica Moore
2009 Ksenia Pervak def. Laura Robson
2010 Karolina Pliskova def. Laura Robson

11...Todd Woodbridge/Mark Woodforde

#1 Serena Williams/USA def. (WC) Justine Henin/BEL 6-4/3-6/6-2

#1 Roger Federer/SUI vs. #5 Andy Murray/GBR

#2 Williams/Williams (USA/USA) def. #1 Black/Huber (ZIM/USA) 6-4/6-3

#1 Bryan/Bryan (USA/USA) def. #2 Nestor/Zimonjic (CAN/SRB) 6-3/6-7/6-3

#1 Black/Paes (ZIM/IND) vs. Makarova/Levinsky (RUS/CZE)

#6 Karolina Pliskova/CZE def. Laura Robson/GBR 6-1/7-6

#14 Tiago Fernandes/BRA def. Sean Berman/AUS 7-5/6-3

Cepelova/Skamlova (SVK/SVK) def. #1 Babos/Dabrowski (HUN/CAN) 7-6/6-2

Eleveld/Lupescu (NED/NED) def.. #2 Krawietz/Schulz (GER/GER) 6-4/6-4

TOP QUALIFIER: Yanina Wickmayer/BEL
TOP EARLY ROUND (1r-2r): Kim Clijsters/BEL
TOP MIDDLE-ROUND (3r-QF): Serena Williams/USA
TOP LATE ROUND (SF-F): Serena Williams/USA
TOP QUALIFYING MATCH: Q3: Kathrin Woerle/GER def. Bopana Jovanovski/SRB 6-2/4-6/9-7
TOP EARLY RD. MATCH (1r-2r): 2nd Rd.- (wc) Justine Henin/BEL def. #5 Elena Dementieva/RUS 7-5/7-6
TOP MIDDLE-RD. MATCH (3r-QF): 4th Rd.- (wc) Justine Henin/BEL def. (q) Yanina Wickmayer/BEL 7-6/1-6/6-3
TOP LATE RD. MATCH (SF-F): Final - #1 Serena Williams/USA def. (wc) Justine Henin 6-4/3-6/6-2
FIRST SEED OUT: #14 Maria Sharapova/RUS (lost 1st Rd.- Kirilenko/RUS)
FIRST WIN: Dinara Safina/RUS (def. Rybarikova/SVK)
UPSET QUEENS: The Russians
LAST QUALIFIER STANDING: Yanina Wickmayer/BEL [4th Rd.]
IT GIRL: Maria Kirilenko/RUS
CRASH & BURN: Maria Sharapova/RUS ('08 champ, lost 1st Rd. to Kirilenko/RUS)
ZOMBIE QUEEN: Serena Williams/USA - down 6-4/4-0 to Azarenka/BLR in QF (won title)
LAST SHEILA STANDING: Samantha Stosur/AUS [4th Rd.]
JUNIOR BREAKOUT: Karolina & Kristyna Pliskova/CZE

All for now. More after the men's final, followed by the Dorothy Tour Awards (and Fed Cup picks).


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