Saturday, January 27, 2007

Return of the Queen: Serena Williams wins the 2007 Australian Open; What does it mean for her and what does it say about the state of the WTA?

The 2007 Australian Open's Women's Final lasted only 63 minutes. It probably seemed like an eternity to top-seeded (and the new world's #1 when the WTA announces its new rankings on Monday) Maria Sharapova of Russia, as she was beaten convincingly, 6-1, 6-2, by unseeded Serena Williams of the United States.

In her defense, Sharapova definitely did not bring her "A" game. She served up six double faults against only three aces. Her first serve percentage was only 51%, and, when forced to deliver a second serve to a focused Williams, Sharapova won only 26% of those points. She also faced an opponent seemingly (and incongruously) at the peak of her considerable powers. Serena Williams played perhaps the best and cleanest tennis of her career. She hit 28 winners against only 13 unforced errors. It was a dominating performance, and Williams announced to the tennis world that, when focused and injury-free, she is still arguably the women's game's most talented player and definitely its fiercest competitor.

A return to championship form by Serena Williams is obviously good for the WTA Tour. Justine Henin, the world's number 1 heading into the Australian Open, withdrew for personal reasons, making Sharapova the top-seeded player in Melbourne. Lindsay Davenport announced her retirement in mid-December. Kim Clijsters declared before the start of the year that this season would be her last. Amelie Mauresmo, despite winning two majors in 2006, still delivers performances that cause observers to wonder about her mental toughness. Her play in Australia, which culminated in a loss to unseeded Lucie Safarova of the Czech Republic in the 4th Round, did nothing to quiet the naysayers. The third-seed, 2004 U.S. Open Champion, Russian Svetlana Kuznetsova, also lost in the 4th round, to the 16th seed, Shahar Peer of Israel. After a first-round scare against France's Camille Pin, Sharapova had a comparatively easier time than Williams making it to the finals. During the final three rounds, however, her powerful first serve, an integral part of her game, deserted her. Her opponents in the quarterfinals, Anna Chakvetadze of Russia, and semifinals, Clijsters, were unable to take advantage. In the finals, she met an opponent who did.

The quarterfinal runs of Peer and Safarova were great stories, as was 17-year-old Nicole Vaidisova's advancing to the semifinals. Still, it is a case of "good news, bad news" for the WTA when unheralded players do not seem to have to play their best tennis to knock out two of the top three seeds at a slam, and the top seed is obliterated in the final in just over one hour. Parity is wonderful, but only when parity also produces competitive and exciting matches.

In that sense, Serena Williams' victory, her third win at the Australia Open, and the eighth major championship of her career, is also a case of "good news, bad news". The good news is that one of women's tennis' most exciting performers is back. The bad news is that an unseeded player with questionable fitness and little match play coming into the tournament won it all, while several of the top seeds displayed woefully inconsistent serves and erratic ground strokes. While a stirring run by Serena Williams may have answered many questions about her commitment to the sport, it may have also raised many questions about the current quality of the women's game.

3 comments:

Matt said...

Sure it raises questions, but questions get answered, eventually. It's unfair to expect everyone to perform or for each tournament to produce thrilling matches towards the climax. It's also easy to forget just how dominant Serena was not so long ago, winning four slams in a row. And just how unfit was she really ? She was clearly heavier and larger, but was she really slower or weaker - it sure didn't seem so. Yes she was ring rusty in a lot of her matches - unforced errors on forehands for example.. But she showed what still lay underneath and that's the determination of a real champion. Personally I'm glad she came out and displayed what she is really capable of, and surely it's a performance that must rank among her very best ever. Perhaps the most pertinent question then, is what are the other girls going to do to improve? This obviously has more positive to it than negative.

From an onlookers perspective (admitedly a serena fan) I really did enjoy seeing her enjoying herself so much on court. The tour has missed Serena. She makes for dramatic matches. Lets also not forget that two players served for the match against her in this tournament. I thought it was thrilling viewing and a plus to the WTA tour. Nice article :)

Matt
http://www.Punt.com

oba said...

Matt,

Thanks for the comments. I definitely have nothing but kudos for Serena's performance, not only in the finals, but throughout the whole tournamnt. I honestly feel that the match she played against Sharapova was the best tennis I've ever seen her play, and I think that her return to form is definitely a great thing for tennis.

As for what her victory says about the WTA, I'm sorry, but in my opinion, the perfomances by Kuznetsova and Mauresmo, the absence of Henin, and the retirement of Davenport DO raise some questions about the state of the women's game. It's hard to say this without some interpreting it as a knock against Serena or an attempt to diminish her well-earned victory. That is NOT what I'm trying to do.

As far as Serena's dominance being "not so long ago", well, tI know it seems like only yesterday, but the Serena Slam culminated with her win in the Australian Open. The 2003 Australian Open!

In tennis years, that IS a long time. At the end of the 2003 Australian Open, Andre Agassi had just won his eighth major championship and was about to become the oldest player ever to achieve the #1 ranking. Roger Federer had yet to win a major championship. Rafael Nadal was 16 years old.

I'm glad Serena's back in championship form, but I can't pretend that the performance by he other ladies in the draw didn't have me wondering when they'll step up, as well. I'm commenting on what the other players in the women's draw didn't do (in matches that didn't even involve Serena).

Matt said...

Hi Oba,

Good points. Time is passing too quickly round here.

I agree on your points regarding Kuznetsova and Mauresmo and the others. Petrova caved poorly v Serena, Jankovic who had looked brilliant in recent times - no match, and Vaidisova weak mentally could be given the benefit of doubt being 17. The other players did not step up in this tournament, but surely they will?

The problem is, if Serena plays that well consistantly, no one will beat her. And perhaps you are right, the female tennis world has not moved forward since Serena took a step back. Maybe they have all settled on a certain standard. I read another blog recently that said the womens game is entertaining enough at the level everyone was used to without Serena being around. I have to wonder if they are right. They will have to get out of their comfort zones now.

It will be interesting seeing Henin come back to face Serena at some point. Lets give it some time this year and see what it has in store for us. At the moment we have one tournament to judge things on, one where 2 people almost beat her and then arguably suffered under the performance of her career. The rest under performed or looked rusty at the start of a new year. I often think it is quite harsh having a slam so close to the start of the season.