September 8, 2014

One More in the Books

Serena Williams won her first Grand Slam championship in New York in 1999.

Fifteen years later she was hoisting Major trophy number eighteen, becoming only the fourth player in the Open Era -- man or woman -- to hit that mark.

Anticipation was high for this moment since last summer, when a fifth U.S. Open title brought her within a stone's throw of the milepost achieved by legends Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova a quarter century or longer ago. But while there may have been times this year when she showed she could be just as vulnerable as anyone on the biggest stages, perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that the long-time world #1, and arguably the most dominant player this century, got there eventually.

Serena's almost always the favorite at any tournament she enters -- on paper or not -- but players had gotten used to her bringing her best at the Slams. There was a stretch between early 2008 and mid-2011, in fact, where the only tournaments she won were Majors and year-end championships. Things changed a bit this year, though, and she was in danger of posting her first Major-free year -- of those in which she entered all four -- since 2001. After an easy win in Brisbane, she suffered her first career loss to Ana Ivanovic in the Australian Open fourth round; after her win in Rome, she was stunned early by upstart Garbiñe Muguruza in defense of her Roland Garros crown; and she failed to avenge her Dubai loss to Aliz&eactue; Cornet at the All England Club.

This year, somewhat uncharacteristically, it seemed a strong warm-up season was no indication of future results, so even with a 12-1 record since Wimbledon, Serena's prospects in Flushing Meadows were uncertain.

But Williams was able to regroup just in time. She began her New York campaign with some easy straight set wins, only facing her first real test in the quarterfinals when Flavia Pennetta ran off to a 3-0, two-break lead to start their match. But the task would be a little tougher in Sunday's final against a resurgent Caroline Wozniacki -- the 2009 runner-up was playing some of the best tennis of her career, taking out French Open champ Maria Sharapova in a gripping fourth round before totally demolishing thirteenth seed Sara Errani in the quarters. The former world #1 also took Serena to three sets in two matches over the summer, and having put together her best Major run in five years, she could have given Serena more than a little bit of trouble.

Serena, though, had other plans -- though the pair traded breaks early in the match, Williams was the aggressor from the start. She fired off fifteen winners in the first set compared to just one service ace from Wozniacki, and in the next actually cleaned up her game with twice as many winners as errors. She didn't allow a break opportunity in the second set and after just over an hour had wrapped up the win, officially making the U.S. Open her most successful Major.

Of course now the question becomes if and when Williams will match or surpass Steffi Graf's haul of twenty-two Slam singles titles. The way she played this fortnight, there's no reason to believe she can't get it done even next year. Still, plenty of others will be trying their best to start a record collection of their own -- but if Serena's performance in New York showed us anything, it's that she's not ready to go anywhere yet.

No comments: