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.