Serena in Four Parts
by Bobby Chintapalli
CHARLESTON – Chances are, you saw what Serena Williams did yesterday in the semifinals of the Family Circle Cup or at least heard about it. A player who knows how to dominate did just that and did it about as well as she ever has – she said so herself – in routing reigning U.S. Open winner and former Family Circle Cup champ Sam Stosur 6-1, 6-1 to reach the final, where today she’ll face Lucie Safarova and try to win her 40th singles title in the tournament’s 40th year. Here are some odds and ends about that match and about Serena from close enough to touch the green clay under her feet and watch it fly off the racquet in her hands.
You could hardly hear Serena, but you could certainly feel her. It felt like she was everywhere.
She spent so much time close to the baseline, or inside it, and threw herself into her groundstrokes with such force that she always appeared to be moving forward into her court, really making it her own. At the same time Serena hit her balls with a fearsome combination of depth and pace that pushed Stosur back and away from her own baseline and her own court, claiming that side too.
But much of the noise was missing. There was none of that grunting you sometimes hear from Serena or, say, Svetlana Kuznetsova, the kind that sounds so loud and bizarre, you suspect it’s fake or just useless. Today there was a workmanlike exhalation, time and again. It was a sound without frills but with purpose. You noticed it because Stosur herself is so quiet, perhaps the quietest top player, and because of the effect of those exhalations, all those winners, all the shots Stosur could only watch.
This almost silent, but in some ways deafening, sound was the sound of Serena the mad genius at work, and it’s the first thing I noticed when I walked into the stadium three games into the match.
As I left the pressroom, which is less than a minute from the media tables situated maybe 12 rows behind the chair umpire, a volunteer who was watching Serena on TV said what everyone was thinking, “She’s not holding back nothin’!”
Which is more or less what Stosur said when she came into post-match press. For a top player who came directly from the stadium after a 58-minute loss that felt as one-sided as the score, she didn’t look too disappointed.
Part of that is who she is – a stable, mature woman and player. (It doesn’t always come naturally to her, she said, but that for the last few months it has.) Part of that is who she played – Serena at or near her best.
“I thought she played very, very well today,” said Stosur, who felt Serena returned well, positioned herself on the baseline, hit deep balls and generally played aggressive tennis. “[It] didn't really seem to matter what I did. She came out with the goods every time.”
Stosur’s words – and most of the words used as the basis for stories coming out of this tournament – come from transcripts produced by tournament transcriptionist Kelly McKee, who’s worked at the Family Circle Cup for 17 straight years, and who I also mention in Friday’s post.
She said Serena, like her sister, Venus Williams, is easy to transcribe, because she doesn’t talk fast. Marion Bartoli, on the other hand, is hard because the words pour out faster and “roll together.” (McKee said Lindsay Davenport was the fastest-talking tennis player she transcribed.)
The challenge with Serena, it turns out, isn’t about the answering but the asking. “The questions come quicker, and there are just more of them,” said McKee.
But that also means more answers and McKee, who’s got a job at hand and can transcribe up to 240 words a minute, sometimes enjoys hearing the answers that come out of Serena’s mouth and, within hours or sometimes minutes, end up on websites everywhere.
Like the answer when Serena was asked if she was in the zone yesterday and cracked herself up as she brought Andy Roddick into the interview room again: “Yeah… I could have done anything today against anybody. Maybe I could have played Andy again today and beat him. So danger. I’m definitely ready for him now. Today. Just today.”
Or the first answer, from a player who gives herself bad grades even after winning Grand Slam semifinals, in response to whether yesterday’s match was about as good as she’s ever played: “Yeah, I have to say this is probably the best match I’ve played in my career either in a long time or it’s up there in the Top 5. Mainly because Sam is such an excellent clay court player.”
And of course the answer she ended with sentences suitable for a new line of Home Shopping Network motivational posters: “Go big or go home. Life.”
Serena’s dominant performance yesterday was good news for Serena but not tournament photographer Alice Keeney.
“You know, you tend to get more emotion when the match is a little bit tighter,” said Keeney, who has photographed the Family Circle Cup for the past six years, three of them for the tournament itself and three for the Associated Press. “You’ll get some real big fistpumps that Serena will do or she yells. But she didn’t do a ton of that today.”
But Keeney has been pleasantly surprised about one thing: “Interestingly I feel like Serena’s been coming to the net a lot this year, and it has been fun. When they come to the net it does make for a different look. You have to make adjustments, but it’s fun, it’s a challenge.”
Still Keeney thinks Stosur’s easier to photograph, as she and a fellow photographer discussed yesterday: “The timing for whatever reason lines up or she hangs and holds the racquet up high for a little bit longer. Serena’s a little bit more difficult – just the way she lines up for her forehand or her backhand or whatever it is.”
But the two photographers’ benches, situated on the green clay a few feet from the net post across from the chair umpire, are as full as they ever are when Serena’s playing. By 6-1, 5-0 yesterday 12 photographers sat there with their cameras out. Stosur was serving, yet 11 photographers had their cameras aimed at Serena. By contrast out on the benches for the end of Safarova’s match were seven photographers.
Not that Safarova noticed. She doesn’t see or hear the photographers, she said afterwards and added, “When I go on the court I concentrate. My thoughts are what I should do, what is the game plan, how the game develops. So I’m not really paying attention around me.”
And what about Serena, who was all business and silence out there today – does she notice those folks clicking away? “Actually I do and I shouldn’t,” she said. “Very rare but like sometimes when you’re serving, your eye line is just kind of there, so naturally you see them. But I don’t necessarily focus on them.”
But back to the other side of the lens and Keeney. (Both of the pictures in this post are hers.) For the final she’d prefer that Safarova didn’t wear her yellow visor, which she says has been casting a “sort of yellow tone on her face.” And perhaps it makes it harder to capture something Keeney, as a photographer, loves about Safarova. “She has the greatest expression with her eyes,” said Keeney. “They get really big when the ball is coming. And they’re just such a bright color that they really light up in the sun.”
As from Serena the photographer wants more fistpumps. Which means, of course, that she’s hoping for a close final: “Yeah, you know that draws out the emotion – it really does.”