Two Returns, One Surprise

by: Steve Tignor | August 01, 2011

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Sw There are certain things in tennis that we should probably just go ahead and stop wondering about.

For example: Will Rafael Nadal’s leg-pounding style end his career early? Since he turned 25, he’s won the French Open and reached the Wimbledon final.

Or: Is Novak Djokovic really a different player and human than he was just last year? Centre Court is where reputations are made, and in his case, transformations sealed.

Or, and this question was answered yet again over the last seven days: How many times can Serena Williams hoist herself off the sidelines after a long hiatus and pick up where she left off, beating the best the tour has to offer at the moment and generally restoring order in the WTA house? Judging by her unruffled, imperious and totally-predictable-in-hindsight performance at Stanford, she’ll be out there teaching her younger opponents lessons when Nadal and Djokovic are making their Hall of Fame speeches at Newport.

You don’t normally associate the word “Serena” with the term “calming effect,” but that’s the feeling I had watching her over the weekend. Why, exactly, should a tennis fan, and in particular a women’s tennis fan, welcome her return? Here are three reasons that came to my mind, as she slowly gained momentum and then rolled over Marion Bartoli on Sunday.

Serena’s almost 30—and she can kick!
That’s an old Saturday Night Live reference, if you’re wondering, but here I’m talking about Williams’s serve, which is up among the most important shots in tennis history. Yesterday she hit her share of aces up the T, but what I liked best was her recognition that hard and flat was not necessarily the best way to serve to Bartoli. The Frenchwoman loves pace above all else, and after she blistered a couple of returns for winners, Williams stopped giving it to her. She mixed up her service speeds and spins just enough to throw Bartoli off of her return groove. The key came when Williams was down break points at 2-4 in the first. She saved one with a flat ace and another with a completely different serve, a hard, sharply angled kick. That’s what elevates her, and that’s why her serve continues to be as important as it is.

Serena can improvise
When we think of Williams, we think of power and determination and diva-dom and a clenched fist, but we rarely think of her improvisational shot-making skills. They were much in evidence against Bartoli. First there was the low-toss, hooking slice serve that she came up with as a way to combat the sun that was blinding her when she attempted to serve into the ad court on one side. She made a shot that is almost certainly not a part of her practice repertoire look easy. It was effective, too, often handcuffing Bartoli. Later, in what would prove to be the match’s crucial game—5-5 in the first set—Williams suddenly went with another new shot, a side-spinning slice backhand. The change of pace won her a point, and she eventually won that game. She only lost one more.

Serena is all-business at the moment
She overpowered the Wimbledon finalist, Maria Sharapova, and made her look like a shaky, shanky rookie in the quarterfinals. She did something similar to new Wimbledon semifinalist and woman on the rise, Sabine Lisicki, in the semifinals. And she avenged her own Wimbledon loss to a much-improved Bartoli in the final. Williams did all of this with a minimum of drama. In the last three rounds, she didn’t have to stage any back-from-the-brink comebacks, didn’t have to endure any prolonged periods of mishit-heavy tennis, didn’t even need to fire herself up all that often. The determination was already there.

Serena is committed to playing three more tournaments before the U.S. Open. By winning this one, she cut her ranking in half, from No. 169 to No. 79. She could, if she keeps winning, be seeded for the Open. And while the majors have always been her primary motivation, it seems that the rankings may have played a bigger role than normal this time around.

“I hated the triple digits,” Serena said yesterday, belying the notion that she doesn’t care about her spot in the computerized pecking order. “I’ve got to get to single digits, though.”

In celebrating her first regular tour event win in two years, Serena let the world know which single digit she needs to get to when she raised her index finger to the crowd. There wasn't much wag in this finger; it was held there as a simple statement of fact and purpose. It may soon be an irrefutable truth.

Call it a fourth reason we should be happy to have Serena back. If she keeps this up, she’ll give us a No. 1, and a WTA ranking system, we can believe in again.

Eg *****

As unsurprising as Serena Williams’ win was, that’s exactly how surprising the result was in the other California tournament held last week, in Los Angeles. That’s where Ernests Gulbis, the ATP’s most outdated underacheiver, chose to make his latest stand, and remind us, one more time, of how explosive his game can be.

Gulbis, with new coach Guillermo Cañas looking on, beat the two top seeds, Juan Martin del Potro and Mardy Fish, on his way to his second career title. He also showed that, while you don’t get a whole lot of variety at the top of the men's game these days, the second tier remains something of a free-for-all. Just when you think del Potro is ready to begin his inevitable Slam run; just when you think Mardy Fish has begun to believe in himself as a Top 10 player and is starting to find ways to win matches he should otherwise lose, it’s the written-off Gulbis who suddenly comes up clutch and turns himself into a summer threat.

What changed? Gulbis looks fitter, and he didn’t wilt, as he has many times in the past, in the L.A. heat. He also appeared to be moving better. He tracked down very good drop shots from Fish, and his reflexes were sharp on returns as the match progressed, particularly on serves down the T in the deuce court. There was a commitment from Gulbis to go after his backhand more forcefully than I’ve seen before; with his strong left hand and closed racquet face, he almost uses the shot like a second forehand. As far as tactics go, Cañas says that all he wants Gulbis to do is play “solid.” And you could see that word in the way the Latvian tried to set up points to emphasize his strengths. Big serve down the middle, move around to hit an inside-out forehand, control the middle of the court. That’s what “solid” means.

Of course, there was a lot of classic Ernie involved as well. He went for too much, especially on his backhand side, and was hit and miss for much of the afternoon. He suffered a brain cramp at exactly the wrong moment: serving at 5-6 and deuce, he thought, inexplicably, that Fish’s return was going to sail long. It didn’t; instead it landed five feet in front of the baseline. All Gulbis could do was flip back a weird slice forehand, which lost him the point and, a few seconds later, the set.

And all of the solid play appeared ready to go for naught in the third set, when Gulbis let Fish come back from 5-1 to 5-4. Gulbis said later that serving at 5-2, the problem hadn’t been nerves, but a lack of them. He found his anxiety again just in time, coming up with two good drop shots and one last killer forehand to hold for the match and the title.

It’s probably safe to predict where Serena is heading—in the direction of that raised index finger. Gulbis? I’ll hold off on any speculation in this (head) case: We’ve seen his rise and fall and rise and fall before. But I will say that as frustrating as his stop-and-start, hit-and-miss inconsistency can be to watch, his explosiveness, with feet and racquet, is just as welcome a return as Serena’s. More important, Gulbis ended yesterday’s final by doing what we’ve always wanted him to do. Hitting good drop shots and forehand winners: That’s called using your God-given talent to a productive end. It’s called achieving.

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