It may not be remembered as the greatest win of Serena Williams’ career; after all, it wasn't even recorded at a Grand Slam event. But if you had to pick a "legacy" match with which to honor Williams, today's 6-1, 6-3 blowout of Victoria Azarenka in the Madrid final might do the trick. Because:
—Williams was ranked No. 9 going into Madrid. Azaranka wasn't only the world No. 1, it wasn't all that many weeks ago that pundits and fans were—with some justification—wondering whether or not she was going to go all Djokovic on the WTA (that is, duplicate the extraordinary run Novak had through the first half of 2011). After all, Azarenka was 29-2 on the year at the outset of Madrid. But Williams herself was 17-2—a detail easily forgotten in the (justified) hype surrounding Azarenka's spectacular start. The win also improved Williams’ career record over Azarenka to 7-1.
—Williams also defeated, with comparable ease (6-1, 6-3), the other dominant WTA player of the year thus far, fomer No. 1 Maria Sharapova. Presently No. 2, Sharapova had a 22-4 record going into Madrid and had battled Azarenka in two of the last three major WTA events (Indian Wells and Stuttgart).
—The back-to- back wins (if not knockouts) over the present and former No. 1s (and both Grand Slam champions) were on clay, not on grass or hard courts, where Williams’ game is most deadly. And it was on the innovative—and controversial—blue clay that almost caused such manly men as Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal (both of whom lost in the men’s event) to throw hissy fits.
Granted, Madrid's blue clay was harder and more slippery than traditional European red clay, and thus more favorable to a shotmaker and aggressive server like Serena. But like everyone else, Serena had to navigate the potential physical and mental challenges of the never-before-tried surface.
At the start of the tournament, Serena described the blue clay as “ridiculous.” But she came up with a novel strategy that seemed to have escaped the illustrious male warriors: She accepted and embraced the mission. Call hers the “just deal with it” approach.
This latter aspect of Serena’s win tempts us to once again talk about her in terms of “character,” but never forget that nobody wins on guts and aggression alone. And the final only confirmed what the statistics for the tournament had already suggested: From match-to-match, Serena was just plain more effective and dangerous than Azarenka.
Going into the final, the only category in which Azarenka led Serena was first-serve conversion percentage. That was ironic, because you can tell the story of this match simply through serve and return proficiency—statistics that are intertwined because each of them is dependent on the quality of the serve.
Going into the final, Azarenka was serving close to 65 percent, but Serena was just a few percentage points behind. When you take into account that Williams' serve is simply better—much better (among other things, she had twice as many aces in previous matches as Azarenka)—that slight in conversion percentage is meaningless.
There was one great statistical warning sign for Azarenka going into the final: In both first- and second-serve return proficiency, Williams led Vika by a hefty margin. At 42 percent, Serena enjoyed a great 12 percent superiority against first serves; her 67 percent success rate against second serves was seven points better than Azarenka's. In tennis, those are huge numbers. Given this clear advantage in returning ability, and the difference in the two finalist’s serves, it was clear that control of the match was entirely in Serena’s hands.
In the end, Azarenka served a respectable 60 percent, and Serena a mediocre but still deadly 49 percent. I say “deadly” because Serena won a whopping 91 percent of her first-serve points, while Azarenka won just 63 percent of her own. And Williams won 63 percent of the second-serve points she faced. Therein lay the story of the match.
Once again, the lesson is that the only thing that may be better than superior firepower at the service notch is returning expertise. And when you’re better at both, as seems to be the case with Serena, there’s not much that anyone, including the No. 1-ranked player in the world, can do.