Serena shows she’s class of WTA

Serena Supreme. It would be difficult for anyone to hit a tennis ball better or harder or with more consistent accuracy than Serena Williams managed in winning the WTA Championships on Sunday in Istanbul with a 6-4, 6-3 victory over Maria Sharapova.

It was not just the 11 aces or winning 82 percent of first-serve points. It was the way she moved, the way she hit forehand winners on the run and smacked service returns back past a helpless Sharapova. And the victory was all the more impressive because her tall opponent was hitting the ball well herself and certainly put in a better performance than she had while losing to Serena 6-0, 6-1 in the Olympic final or 6-1, 6-3 on that blue clay in Madrid.

“I feel good,” Serena said in a rare moment of understatement before acknowledging that, after a slow start, “this has been pretty much my best year.”

Analyzing the match for Eurosport, former Wimbledon and US Open champion Virginia Wade agreed with that assessment.

“I think Serena is in her absolute prime now,” Wade said.

That, in itself, is remarkable, because Serena is now 31 and has emerged from two years of injury and serious illness to enjoy a run of success during which she has won Wimbledon, Olympic gold in singles and doubles, the US Open and now the year-ending WTA Championships. In addition, she won Madrid and Stanford. And yet, despite all that, the machinations of the WTA Tour computer won’t allow her to be ranked any higher than third.

She may have played fewer tournaments than either of her two main rivals, but world No. 1 Victoria Azarenka (Australian Open) and No. 2 Sharapova (French Open) only succeeded in winning one Grand Slam title apiece this year. Consistency over the long haul enabled them to achieve such lofty positions, but it fools no one. Serena knows and they all know who the best player in the world is — the one ranked No. 3.

Considering the form Serena was in, Sharapova did well to lose her serve only once in each set. The problem for Maria was her inability to make any inroads on the American’s serve. Only once did she manage to take a Williams service game to deuce, and she never had a break point.

“She did serve consistently well,” said Sharapova, who was close to tears during the presentation ceremony. “I just couldn’t do enough with my returns.”

Overall, however, it has been a fine year for Maria, who achieved a lifetime ambition in June by winning the French Open on a surface she always had struggled on in the past.

“I’m proud of that,” she said. “I’m proud of my consistency through the year. I’m proud that I’m moving in the right direction in terms of improving my game.”

Given that Sharapova is six years younger than Serena, there should come a time when the opportunity to dominate presents itself for this passionate competitor. Despite her annual earnings of some $25 million and all her off-court activities, playing tennis is what Maria loves best, and there is no reason to believe she won’t be playing flat out for the next three or four years.

But Serena is not going anywhere, either. She has proved herself capable of winning when she wants again, despite that first-round hiccup at Roland Garros. Physically, she is looking as good as I ever have seen her.

After the victory, she revealed just how much this win meant to her.

“Now I can be honest,” she said. “I really wanted to win this title, and I put a little pressure on myself. Yeah, I wanted it so bad, but I didn’t want to say it. Like it was really important to me to end the year with this title in particular.”

Serena obviously fed off the enthusiasm of the Turkish fans, which Sharapova and many players remarked on.

“The Turkish fans were so amazing, so nice, so supportive,” Serena said. “I’ve never seen so many signs with my name on them and, as I walked out, there were people sitting on the stairs with no seats just filling the arena ever more. It’s cool, really cool. But then, I have to separate that and focus on winning every point.”

That’s one reason why Serena can win like she does. She wants every point and goes for it, often with devastating results. In this match, she hit 40 winners, many of them blistering crosscourt forehands that gave Sharapova no chance. Against that, she made only 14 unforced errors.

While Serena plays like this, American tennis will always have something to shout about.