January 30, 2010

The Importance of Defense: Part 3

Here's an interesting fact -- even though she's the active player with the most Grand Slam singles titles, until Saturday Serena Williams hadn't successfully defended a Major championship since Wimbledon, 2003. Amazing for someone who's been considered the woman to beat at the big games for most of the past decade.

That ended today as Williams took on a newly un-retired Justine Henin to win her fifth Australian Open trophy. The two had met thirteen times before with the American holding the slightest advantage, but surprisingly never at a Slam final. Between the two there are eighteen Major singles titles and 205 weeks ranked #1. When Henin left the sport twenty months ago, she was at the top of the game, today Serena is. Ironically, in the other tournaments they've played this year, both made and lost in those finals, so both were hungry.

Clearly this was the match-up we wanted to see.

It was an interesting final, though maybe not the best quality tennis we've seen in the last few months -- there were few points that made me gasp or cheer. Serena faced several break points in her first two service games, but Henin struggled to convert early. And just when it started to look like it would be a quick win for Williams, Justine went on a five-game, fifteen-point win streak ending the second to force the first three-set final since Amelie Mauresmo rallied to beat Henin for the 2006 Wimbledon trophy. Momentum was all on Henin's side, but it shifted right back to Serena when she broke her opponent in the third game of the last set. She gave it back the very next game. Neither player served particularly well, with both taking fewer than half of their second attempts. But after just about two hours it was Williams who held the big trophy in her arms.

By defending her title Serena ties the great Billie Jean King with twelve Slam singles titles, sixth on the all-time list, and does something to erase the last memory most might have of her. Henin, unfortunately, ends her campaign to be the second Belgian comeback story to take home a trophy at her first Major back in action, but does remind the world that she is still a force to contend with. With the match a long-time rivalry is reignited, and two world-class players who hadn't met in years kick off the 2010 tennis season with a bang.

It's certainly not the last time we'll see either Henin or Williams back in a championship match -- even facing each other. And the way they've played over the past two weeks suggests we could be in for some high-quality contests.

Let's hope they live up to the standard they've set!

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