Summer of Serena sealed with a slam

Tue, Sep 11, 2012, 01:00

AFTER A set, a fourth US Open title for Serena Williams looked like a foregone conclusion, with the American champion ripping serves and ground strokes at Arthur Ashe late on Sunday with the power and precision that has defined her summer.

Who could have imagined then that by the end of this fine evening, victory would come as a surprise, leaving Williams with her eyes wide and her hands to her head?

“I was preparing my runners-up speech,” Williams said. She would have had to deliver it if the world’s number one ranked player, Victoria Azarenka, had seized her opportunity when serving for the match at 5-4 in the third set. Although Azarenka had done an often-admirable job of coping with Williams’ first-strike pressure in this big-swinging final, she could not handle the chance to win her first US Open.

She lost the first three points, two with unforced backhand errors, and then soon lost the game with a forehand in the tape.

Williams, whose mood and form had fluctuated wildly after the opening set, would not lose her way again: she put an exclamation point on the story of her remarkable summer of tennis by closing out a 6-2, 2-6, 7-5 victory that will rank among her most memorable.

In May, she lost in the first round of a Grand Slam tournament in singles for the first time, losing her nerve and her rhythm against Virginie Razzano of France on clay at the French Open.

“I have never been so miserable after a loss,” said Williams, who responded by training in Paris under a new French coach, Patrick Mouratoglou. “Sometimes they say it’s good to lose. I still would have preferred to win, but, you know, that was forever ago.”

So it must seem. Since Paris, Williams, 30, has won the singles and womens doubles at Wimbledon, won the singles and doubles gold medals at the Summer Olympics and now changed her luck at the US Open, the tournament where she won her first Grand Slam singles title in 1999 at age 17 but where she has lost her temper and the big matches in recent years.

“Now she’s starting to really play up to her potential, which is really great to see,” said Billie Jean King, the former US women’s star who has sometimes counselled Williams. “I think she’s very appreciative of her good health now with what she went through and also what her sister is going though. And she is maturing as a person and you start to appreciate things in a different way as you grow.”

There was much to savour on Sunday evening. Her victory over Azarenka, the 23-year-old from Belarus, gave Williams a 15th Grand Slam singles title, and although Azarenka will remain number one and Williams number four, her victory made Williams the clear player of the year as the only woman to win two major singles titles (three if you consider the Olympics a major).

She prevailed despite a significant dip in form in a final in which she hit 44 winners but also made 45 unforced errors. In her first six matches in New York, she had often looked unbeatable, never coming close to dropping a set. And she had not dropped a set in her three previous matches against Azarenka this year, taking a 9-1 lead in their head-to-head series.

That advantage showed in the first set as Williams put 64 per cent of her first serves into play, dominated the exchanges and won 30 points to Azarenka’s 18. But Williams then lost her serve in the opening game of the second set on a double fault. When she missed a return as Azarenka took a 2-0 lead, Williams shouted and banged the strings of her racket.

It was the sound of a champion exiting the zone, and she soon had to deal with a flashback. In her next service game, she was called for a foot fault on a serve on the same baseline where she had been called for a foot fault against Kim Clijsters in the semi-finals of the 2009 Open. That prompted one of the most infamous tirades in tennis history as Williams threatened and cursed at the lineswoman and was given a point penalty, awarding match point to Clijsters.

This time, Williams did not lose her temper, but after holding serve, she did look toward the male linesman behind the rose-coloured glasses who had called the foot fault and gave him a long, hard stare as she walked to her chair down, 1-2. “This is the first year in a long time I haven’t lost my cool,” said Williams, who also lost her temper with the chair umpire in last year’s loss in the final here to Samantha Stosur after being penalised a point for hindering Stosur while shouting during an exchange.

But while Williams did not implode Sunday, she did lose command as Azarenka won four of the next five games to even the match at one set apiece.

Azarenka certainly deserved some of the credit. Hardcourts are her best canvas. She won her first Grand Slam singles title in January at the Australian Open on a similar surface, and sharpened her game here by surviving a much tougher draw than Williams: defeating Stosur of Australia in a three-set quarter-final and defeating former number one Maria Sharapova in a three-set semi-final.

But Azarenka, who is six feet tall and possesses fine reach, is one of the game’s best returners and also has a remarkable ability to counter big returns off her own serve. As the match developed from a rout into a classic, she repeatedly came up with fast-twitch, quick-swinging half volleys from the baseline that surprised Williams.

And yet after two hours and 18 minutes, it was Williams leaping and dancing with delight, and Azarenka in tears in her chair. “It could have gone my way, probably yes, but it didn’t,” Azarenka said. “And it really, really hurts and those emotions come out and you feel sad, but its time to realise what happened today. You know, it was a great match. It was close but not for me.”

New York Times

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