Serene, Supreme, Sixteen
Great sports moments — tennis fans witnessed one on Saturday in Paris — own a two-tiered quality. The actual competition, the business of winning and losing, is its own story, rooted in technique and strategy and execution under fire. Then, when the winner wins and the loser loses, the career achivements of the participants can then be measured. Serena Williams’s 6-4, 6-4 victory over Maria Sharapova in the women’s singles final of Roland Garros neatly unified the competition between the painted white lines and the enormity of the feat that was forged.
On an immediate level, Serena’s win over Sharapova was genuinely impressive in itself. Sharapova, knowing that the history of her head-to-head series with the younger Williams Sister was so lopsided, embraced the underdog’s role with clarity. She went for her shots and established considerable depth on her groundstrokes in the first few games of the match. Her serve faltered on a few occasions, but it is more of a weapon than it was last year, a big reason why Sharapova managed to make history this fortnight in Paris. Sharapova used her beefed-up serve to make the final of a major tournament as the defending champion, the first time in her career she has crafted that particular breakthrough. That same serve, combined with a generally aggressive mindset, enabled Sharapova to show that her 2012 Roland Garros championship was not an aberration.
Yet, for everything Sharapova did well, her opponent clearly outplayed her and won two sets without needing to win seven games in either stanza.
The details of a tennis match ultimately determine how close a scoreline actually is, but on a general level, a 4-and-4 win is simultaneously competitive and tidy. In a 4-and-4 match, the winner is pushed, but not to the extent that the prospect of a penalty-kick-style crapshoot — that’s what a tiebreaker is — becomes possible.
Think about it: A set needs to arrive at 5-5 in order for an 11th and 12th game to be played in a set. If the favorite is able to close out a set in 10 games, s/he will not spend the first-set changeover worrying about the heat of a 12th-game pressure cooker. One can quite reasonably say that while Serena was indeed tested today, the intensity of Sharapova’s inquiry was never so severe that the outcome of each set was in grave doubt after the ninth game. The first set was modestly more contentious than the second, but at the business end of each journey, everyone on hand at Court Philippe Chatrier knew who was in charge.
This, mind you, on a day when Maria Sharapova played well.
Serena’s serve; her severe-angle forehand to the decue court; and her steely confidence, bolstered by her quarterfinal escape on Tuesday against Svetlana Kuznetsova, enabled the 31-year-old to access a lofty level of quality that Sharapova couldn’t match.
Sharapova and Serena are both world-class competitors. Relative to their skill sets, they both get as much out of their arsenals as they can because they don’t take a backseat to anyone else in terms of the inner game in tennis, the one between the ears. Serena’s skill set is better, though, and she is therefore able to perform at a level commensurate with her skills. Sharapova is a master of the art of competing, and on Saturday, she wasn’t all that deficient as a performer, either. However, there’s no better performer in women’s tennis — and at the present moment, all of tennis — than Serena. If you can’t match her as a performer, you’re not going to beat her.
That’s why Serena is now a 16-time major champion. That’s why she managed to win Roland Garros 11 years after first conquering the terre battue of Paris. That’s why she’s playing the best tennis of her career right now.
J. Scott Fitzwater ( @jscottfitzwater on Twitter ) noted in the aftermath of today’s match that Serena is 74-3 in the past year, since the 2012 Roland Garros tournament. This is a 31-year-old tennis pro, not an ascendant 22-year-old or a reigning 26-year-old in her physical prime.
When Martina Navratilova began her streak of 74 straight match wins in 1984, she was 27. When Steffi Graf completed her streak of 66 straight match wins in 1990, she was only 20. Navratilova won 58 straight matches in 1986 and 1987 at age 30, but Serena’s past 12 months have topped that, at least when you realize the health scares that have been thrown her way in recent years.
Even before today’s match began, Serena Jameka Williams had already established herself as one of the 12 greatest tennis players of all time, and just as surely one of the four greatest female players ever (alongside Martina, Steffi, and Chris Evert). When you win at the highest level in the latter stages of a career; when you win a major 11 years after first claiming it; when you conquer your worst surface for a second time, proving that you’re not a one-note wonder at Roland Garros; and when you achieve all of this by playing a high-quality match against one of your more determined contemporaries, you’re only going to grow in stature and rise in the estimation of tennis historians.
This is a Roland Garros made for legends. Rafael Nadal has built his reputation on terre battue. Serena Williams, as lauded and distinguished as she’s been over the years, has managed to transform her reputation on crushed red brick. In so doing, an already-amazing career has managed to become something much greater.
The greatest of the great — in any sport and any human endeavor — expand the sense of what’s possible. With all due respect to Nadal, about to win his eighth Roland Garros, there’s no active tennis player who is re-drawing horizons more dramatically than Serena Williams.