A month ago, Serena Williams was crying on the court during her first-round loss at the French Open, looking old and devastated. A few days ago, her game still off, she was seeking advice from her sister, Venus, who talked about staying positive.
On Thursday, Serena was the greatest player in the world again, with a serve that is the greatest, most dominating shot the women’s game ever has seen. She beat No. 2-ranked Victoria Azarenka 6-3, 7-6 (6) to reach the final at Wimbledon. She’ll have to beat Agnieszka Radwanska on Saturday to win her fifth Wimbledon title.
And it should happen. If there is any “should” anymore about Williams.
In some ways, she is defying logic and explanation. But Thursday’s match actually wasn’t that difficult to figure out.
She served. The ball didn’t come back.
Williams had 24 aces, the most a woman ever has served at Wimbledon. It’s an entire set’s worth of points. There were moments when Azarenka was threatening. She would hit a winner, or Williams would make a mistake.
But 30 seconds and two aces later?
Threat gone. Pretty simple.
There is no figuring out Williams and her game, or how long it will last. She didn’t come from the typical tennis background. She doesn’t have the typical tennis body. Will it last?
There is no model for this.
Her emotions are everywhere lately, starting with her rant to the US Open chair umpire last fall, calling her a “hater” and “unattractive inside.” She cried in France, fought to keep calm at Wimbledon.
And I really would like to understand what it’s all about. But when she plays the way she did Thursday, you sort of forget about all the side issues and just think:
Williams’ serves were great by the numbers, as she could barely lose any points when it went in. But to see it in person, you saw how she changed the entire geometry of the court.
Azarenka’s serve is not special, and Williams would return it from 3 feet inside the baseline. In fact, Williams’ return of serve was her second-best shot. Meanwhile, Williams’ serve pushed Azarenka several feet back.
So think about this: The court is a rectangle, with the net dissecting the middle. You think about the players being equally distant from the net. Instead, Azarenka was pushed back, having to fire from long distances, and Serena was up close, as if she were playing pingpong.
It was an unfair fight.
It has been two years since Williams won a major, at Wimbledon. That time has included a blood clot in her lungs and some surprising losses. She never should have lost to Sam Stosur in the final of the US Open, much less the early losses at the Australian and French.
You can’t stop age, and Williams was showing it.
But she was showing it just five days ago.
“I’ve been working so hard, and I really, really wanted it,” she said. “I got a little tight in the second set. I couldn’t relax. I was like, looking too far in the future. And she came back.”
Well, sort of. Azarenka did finally break Williams’ serve in the middle of the second set, as Serena got tentative. But then she aced her way back out of trouble.
Sometimes the serve in tennis is seen almost as a trick, or fluke, not a skill. A great server can be seen as someone who is getting by without actually playing tennis.
It’s true that Williams is bigger and stronger than most anyone on tour. But a serve is still about timing and touch, too.
The server isn’t getting enough credit.
Well, at some point, you had to wonder if Williams was done being Williams. She was wondering the same thing.
But this looks just like the old model, the dominant one. I still think she’s going to be more inconsistent from here on than she used to be. But when you look at Roger Federer on the men’s draw, you see a guy who seems to be making one last, great charge.
It doesn’t feel that way with Williams. She might have one year left, three, five. Who knows? She is drama. She is interesting. She is ups and she is downs.
Williams just keeps reminding us that we’ve never seen anything like her before.