February 21, 2014

The Spoiler

In the first five years of their professional lives, Venus and Serena Williams played each other in an astonishing eight championship matches.

Times have changed since 2003, though -- both ladies have struggled with injury and illness and have taken breaks of various lengths from the sport they've both dominated over the last decade. And while Serena has fought her way back to the top of the game, the elder Williams, thirty-three years old now, has seen her ranking fall into the mid-forties, making surges here and there, but staying largely inconsequential at the big events. The sisters haven't met in a final since the year-ends in Doha more than four years ago and have in fact only faced off once since 2009, in the Charleston semis last year, with Serena increasing her lead over her older sibling to 14-10 all-time. Whereas we once lamented Grand Slam draws in which the two were not placed in opposite halves and thus destined to meet only for the title, we now hope we'll see Venus reach the second week, wherever she lands in the bracket.

This week in Dubai we had the opportunity to finally see an all-Williams final again. Unseeded in a tournament at which seven of the top ten players were entered, Venus was in rare form -- in the second round she dominated Ana Ivanovic, importantly getting revenge on the woman who'd ousted her sister and followed it up with a win over world #22 Flavia Pennetta. In Friday's semifinal against Caroline Wozniacki, putting together some big wins herself this week, Venus broke the former #1 an incredible six times, lost just a handful of her first serves, and closed out the match in under ninety minutes. It was her fifth win in as many meetings over the eighth seed, but her first as the underdog, and gained her entry to her second final of the year. With younger sister Serena taking the court against often-spotty Alize Cornet in the second match of the day, it seemed inevitable that we'd get the long-anticipated final showdown.

But the teeny Frenchwoman had other plans. Once ranked as high as #11 in the world, Cornet had dropped into triple digits less than two years ago. A title in Strasbourg last year put her back on the map, though, and after a disappointing loss in Melbourne she fought through four long three set matches through her Paris semifinal run. This week in Dubai she rolled through the first set against red-hot Doha champ Simona Halep in her opener and took out two more higher-ranked players on her way to the final four. She was still the big underdog against top seeded Serena today, though, having only managed one set off her opponent in their previous three meetings, but she didn't let that get to her. The match was tight early, but Cornet earned and won the first break opportunity in the ninth game. She finished off the set and even got an early lead in the second, but when she ceded her lead it looked like the twenty-sixth ranked player would suffer another big Serena comeback. She stayed tough throughout, though, pulled ahead again and even had match points on Serena's serve at 5-3 in the second. And while Cornet, known in the past to have breakdowns when things don't go her way, wasn't able to convert, she held at love in the final game, scoring by far the biggest win of her career and reaching her biggest career final since Rome 2008.

So Cornet's amazing upset precludes what many were waiting and hoping for, but it shouldn't diminish the opportunity tomorrow's final holds for both contestants. For two women who've long been counted out of the mix at the big events, reaching the Dubai championship -- and the possibility of winning it -- could jump-start their careers. And at a tournament like this, there's no better time to do it.

No comments: