by Pete Bodo
Lord knows the WTA branch of tennis has offered up no shortage of drama, palace intrigue, sniping, distractions and fashion statements in recent times. But today, in back-to-back matches, a quartet of Grand Slam champions declared detente and provided great competition instead of emotional crises, beatdowns rather than emotional meltdowns, a triumph of poise to go with the customary noise—the desperate, blood-curdling shriek of Maria Sharapova and the Amazon battle cry of Serena Williams.
Call it "no frills" day at Wimbledon; I'm surprised they weren't offering the WTA calendar at a 50 percent discount. Even the wardrobes were toned down. Justine Henin and Maria Sharapova looked positively chaste in plain, pure white; Kim Clijsters looked unconvincingly commercial with a patch sewn on her white dress above each breast (the one on the right seemed to hang over the edge of the fabric, as if were a sticker pasted on mommy by little Jada), and Serena couldn't resist complementing her pretty white dress with a seditious pair of red bloomers. Was this echo of the St. George's flag donned in commiseration with the host kingdom, whose World Cup squad was so badly drubbed yesterday?
And we saw a lot of those red bloomers today, as Serena launched one atomic serve after another, the white hem of her skirt boiling up around her waist like an angry surf. In this second of the ill-timed fourth-round encounters, a face-off between two Wimbledon champions (it followed the clash of the two most credible of Wimbledon wannnabes), Serena rained down 19 aces, to three for Maria, while hitting just five double faults—two fewer than Sharapova.
The ace-to-double-fault ratio is significant here, because this was that rare, welcome exercise: a WTA match in which the serve was accorded its rightful place at the apex of the pyramid, anchored in a base with strategy at one corner and execution at the other.
But the serving stats tell us very little about how well Sharapova actually served. Serena dominated the ace count, but Sharapova produced a bushel of unreturnables. The numbers also obscure the costly nature of those two more double faults Sharapova hit—both of them were in the excruciatingly close first set tiebreaker, and played a major role in its outcome (11-9, to Serena).
That surfeit of aces helps explain how Serena managed to win 84 percent of points played on her first serve (compared to a healthy 74 percent for Sharapova), but Serena's first-serve conversion rate of 68 percent was just five points better than Sharapova's. After that first-set tiebreaker, reporters could be forgiven for quaking in their boots at a prospect of another John Isner-Nicolas Mahut stalemate. It says a lot about this match that the comparison can be drawn.
"She (Serena) served extremely well, "Sharapova said. "Some of the best she (ever) served against me. And, yeah, I think today that was really the difference. You know, I had a few looks at her serve. But I think even when you had a good look and the ball's coming at you in the 120s, it's pretty tough to do much with it."
A few other service stats to digest: while Serena's fastest first serve (125 mph) was a hefty nine miles per hour better than Maria's, her second serve was, on average, just one mph faster (102), and Serena's first-serve average speed (113) was just three mph better than Sharapova's. They were tied for average speed of second serve at 96 mph.
Sharapova is one of the very few women who can stand toe-to-toe with Serena and take big cuts, letting chips fall where they may. The grass surface works to Sharapova's advantage, enhancing her strengths (precision, power, and even reach) while minimizing her liabilities (consistency and general movement). And Serena's superb serving seemed to lift Maria's own efficiency at the notch. As Sharapova said, "By serving so well, Serena makes you think that you really need to hold on to your service games. You know, I did a good job of that. Just not enough. I was going for it when I had my opportunities. Just fell a little short."
I wondered if Serena likes the challenge of facing an opponent who won't be cowed, and seems happy to play at the high-stakes poker table: Aggression-plus, meet aggression squared. But it was a discussion in which Serena had little interest. She said, "It doesn't matter (who I play). You just have to be ready for anyone and everyone. I don't really care who or what style I play, to be honest."
Well, there's no love lost between those two. At one time, the same could be said about Henin and Clijsters, although the Belgian rivals figured out along the way that is in their best interest to remain above it all and capitalize on the honor they've jointly brought to their tiny nation. A week after Wimbledon, Champagne Kimmy and The Sister of No Mercy will meet on home soil in an exhibition match that might shatter the record for the largest live audience to watch players of the same sex battle it out.
The last few matches between Henin and Clijsters have been expressionistic affairs, filled with mental anguish and emotional tension, error-fraught, almost lurid. If the confrontations in Brisbane and Miami (both of which ended 7-6 in the third) were painted, it would be by the ghost of Edvard Munch. It looked for a bit like we might be in for the customary chaos angst and woe. Clijsters, after having played in a semi-paralyzed state in the first set, won the second set by the same 6-2 score. I reached for an air sickness bag, but the expected turbulence never materialized. The women kept their emotions leashed and their groundstrokes dialed in, and Clijsters won it, 6-3 in the third.
This has to rank as a crushing blow to Henin, who has let everyone know that perhaps her main reason for coming out of a brief, premature retirement was the lure and challenge of winning Wimbledon. She thereby sparked a renewal of a familiar narrative that the only Grand Slam she hasn't won is the one to which her versatile, skill-based game and nimble feet are best suited. I embraced that theme as wholeheartedly as anyone, although lately I find myself rethinking that position. For Clijsters, mercifully free of anxieties, demonstrated the value of an aggressive, physical game played from on or inside the baseline.
Henin's problems were—and perhaps inevitably are—manifold on grass. There's that big wind-up, especially on the backhand side. There's that shortfall of pure power—Serena or Maria-grade power—that can earn you that welcome number of free or at least easy points. And there's that awful, critical lack of time that an aggressive player forces upon you. The single most striking symbol of some or all of the above was the number of times Henin was rushed, forced to hit her backhand while on the verge of falling over backward, or from a position so awkward that at times she looked more like a bumbling understudy trying to hit a backhand like Henin's, and making a hash of it.
It took Clijsters the entire first set to get her bearings, while Henin started fast and well. "I was just very overwhelmed by the speed of her game in the beginning," Clijsters admitted afterward. "She was just on top of every shot that I hit."
Finding room to operate on Clijsters’ forehand side, Henin pounded away at it—so much so that once Clijsters settled in and began to find her rhythm, Henin fed her such a steady diet of forehands that Clijsters got grooved, and more accurate and consistent as the match chugged along. By the mid-point of the third set, Clijsters had found her range and she pushed Henin way behind her baseline, thereby opening up the court for her own incursions. And by the end, Clijsters looked like a player with a skill-set, based on strength and mobility, better suited to grass courts.
With this match, Clijsters appears to have overturned the long-term status of her rivalry with Henin. It now looks like perhaps Clijsters is the one who "ought" to own a Wimbledon title, and she's open to that theory. When I raised the issue in the Clijsters' presser, she said:
"I've always had a lot of respect and admired Wimbledon as a tournament. But in the past, I've never had that same comfortable feeling out there as I did on hard court in America or the U.S. Open. I have to say since I've come back, I feel definitely a lot more comfortable. . . I definitely feel that I'm more at ease moving from side to side. Especially those first two steps forward on grass are extremely important, especially against Justine, because she has that slice that kind of drops dead a little bit. . .I really felt that on grass now I can really, yeah, just step up."
Or, if Clijsters was taking her first two steps forward, Henin was more inclined to take them sideways and admitted as much: "I wasn't moving forward enough, that's for sure."
About that "drop dead" slice: It was nowhere in evidence today, which was the second of Henin's two greatest tactical mistakes (over-working Clijsters’ forehand being the first). She seemed willing to play the game on Clijsters' physical terms, and trying to manage instead of neutralize or even preempt her opponent's aggression by taking the game to her. All of which raises an interesting issue when it comes to Henin's coach, Carlos Rodriguez. Her steadfast mentor spent the match enthusiastically coaching Henin out of contention, which some will interpret as a satisfying form of poetic justice.
After all, coaching from the gallery is forbidden at Grand Slam events. And the impunity of Rodriguez's coaching activities was such that it was—rightly, I thought—much discussed by Lindsay Davenport, who's working as a color commentator for the BBC. At one point, Davenport said: "I believe in allowing on-court coaching. But if you have rules you ought to police them. The coaching has been very blatant, so you have to wonder, were the Wimbledon umpires told to ignore it?"
But let's focus on all the positives produced this day. Serena is imposing a welcome, much-needed sense of order and structure on the matches she plays. Clijsters has emerged to become the accidental contender. And Maria Sharapova seems headed for the lofty region she once occupied in the rankings.
"I was very happy that I got myself in the situation to win the match," Sharapova reflected. "I certainly could have done a little bit of better job in executing. You know, I can sit here and whine about that. But the fact that I gave myself a chance and I went out there and I'm feeling, you know, just really happy to be playing out there the way I want to play, and the way that makes me happy playing, uhm, it's a joy."
That too was a welcome if unexpected element on no frills day at Wimbledon.