by Pete Bodo
So, imagine for a moment that you are Elena Dementieva, ready to make your service toss at 3-6, 3-1, deuce. . .a critical game that you know you must hold if you want to sieze the momentum, perhaps even if you just want to stay in this match. It's the semifinals of the Australian Open - one of the four tournaments that comprise the Grand Slam, one of the four "majors" that have persistently eluded you, despite the glories in which you've cloaked yourself over a nine-year career.
You are, you know, most everyone's choice as the best player not to have won a Grand Slam - at least among those players who have accumulated enough of a history for that shortcoming to be noteworthy to the point of seeming an aberration.
So there you are, galloping 'Lena. You settle into your service stance, a position that, yet again, looks a little different to many of those watching, looks less like the utterly natural, critically comfortable product of a lifelong habit than something you've consciously chosen to emulate, and decided to make your own, much like that dance move you practiced before your bedroom mirror as a teen-ager on the night before a big dance.
You look up. The woman you see across the net is a full-figured girl in a pleasantly non-threatening blue dress, with a broad. chartreuse cloth - half headband, half dew-rag - binding back her dark tresses. Her dark skin seems almost to glow beneath that glaze of perspiration, and you can see the definition in her arms - those muscles that, were they on a guy, would cause onlookers to whisper, My god, look at those guns!
And while that cherished Grand Slam title has always eluded you, the quiet, imposing girl at the far end has earned 9, so far, and she's determined to get her tenth (something about her hoping to get "letters" or something out of that deal). A part of you had hoped she wouldn't be there, maybe even thought she might not end up there (when you allowed yourself such fantasies), opposite you, given her unpredictable nature and the way she's played so far in this tournament. She's ridden the ragged edge of risky tennis, at times seemingly indifferent tennis bordering on sulky, defensive, intransigent tennis. Yet once again, somehow, there she is, the WTA Grim Reaper, albeit carrying a Wilson racket instead of a gnarly staff, and wearing a chartreuse bandeau instead of a hood.
Why can't it be someone other than Serena Williams over there?
That ball suddenly feels like a lead shot in your hand and, since you have the soul of a track athlete, you almost wish you could just tuck the optic yellow ball under your chin, spin around a few times, and ooommph it over the net, into the service box. This is tennis, though, and you've got quite a checklist to go through as you get ready to toss the ball - keep the head up, arch the back, keep the wrist loose, etc. etc. It's complicated, all right, but let's be honest about this: the biggest complication of all is that person over - that Serena. . .
And as the checklist shrivels up in the heat and bursts into flames under the pressure, you hit a double fault (advantage, Miss Williams!) and then another (game, Miss Williams!), and just like that you've given up the only lead you've had, or are destined to have. The pressure is off. You can run again, although a part of you knows that running alone won't get the job done. You can smack two-handed backhands that pull you around, square-up to the net, and elicit ooooohs of admiration from the crowd, but that won't do it, either. It's demonstration time: you can still show everyone what you've got, the good stuff that has earned you a perfect record (thus far) for 2009, but when it comes to earning that first major, the chance is gone - snatched like a gaudy straw hat from your head by a fierce, hot wind.
It's hard not to feel for 'Lena, but then it's legitimate to ask whether someone with such a glaring flaw really ought to win a Grand Slam event. Given Dementieva's results since last summer, we had reason to think that she'd hurdled that final, hitherto omnipresent obstacle to ultimate success - the conquest of her nerves, the state of which has always been telegraphed to us by her service proficiency. The message she tapped out yesterday told us that we were wrong. It just took a player of Williamses stature to tease out the message.
After the match, Serena was asked what she "did better" today than in her previous and sometimes uninspired performances. She replied: "Well, I definitely served better. It's so important to serve well against her. She's a really good returner. I moved better and I was definitely more consistent and I kept my cool. . ."
While all of that is true, Serena's greatest virtue may have been the last quality she cited. She kept her cool. It was apparent from the start that Dementieva was jacked-up and jumpy, probably convinced that she had to do too much, too quickly, in order to beat Serena. It was a predictable dynamic, and one that Serena routinely relies on in her matches. To a greater extent than any woman player in recent memory, Serena has imposed herself on the game. Great players of the past - Martina Navratilova immediately comes to mind - have been no less intimidating to play, but it's always been the direct result of their form and recent results. The girls knew they would get waxed, because Martina has waxed the last 123 player's she's met - why should today be any different?
But it's different with Serena. Her opponents quake in their tennis boots simply because of who she is, and the extent to which she's shown that each day is a new day. That's usually good news for the aspiring upset-maker, but Serena has turned the cliche upside down: On any day, there a good chance that Serena will just get a notion to go out and. . . destroy you. The WTA exists in a state of this perpetual fear.
On each new day you face a sum total of experience, talent, determination, and skill that is as absolute as it is unpredictable, and unrelated to the previous day. This can be, as they say, stress-inducing. Sit back to sniff the wind and try to get a read on how she's playing that day and you may quickly find yourself running for cover. Attack too eagerly and you get shot to rags. I wonder how many women players have been taught, or told: Now, it's really important to get a good start against Serena. Keep her off balance. She hasn't been playing that great, so if you can get a good jump you can take control of the match. . .
My advice to a player going out to meet Serena would be: Go try to find a rock or something to hide under for a little while, then stick your head up slowly to take a look.
Seriously, though, I honestly think discretion is the better part of valor when you face Serena, although I completely understand the temptation to go out and swing from the heels - at least nobody is going to accuse you of hiding under a rock.
The interesting - and novel - element here is that any opponent of Serena's, in any match, knows that she is capable of . . . anything. And how do you adequately prepare for anything? The terms of engagement immediately put you in a defensive position, a place no player with even a soupcon of pride likes to be, and to which the almost reflexive response is aggression - a determination to take the game to Serena. The temptation when you face Serena must be to run right out of your sneakers, crank up the dial to the proverbial no. 11, take the game to her - and that's exactly how Serena lures her victims to their doom.
That cool you left behind? Guess who's got it?
And before you really figure out what's happened, you're up at the net for the handshake. Serena thanks you for the match, and if she wanted to be honest about it, she'd add: And here's your hat, m'am. . .