Zen This!

Saturday, July 07, 2012 /by

WIMBLEDON, England—People turn to all forms of comfort in times of need. For some, it's prayer, for others it's a double bourbon on the rocks. There's the whole Beatles "Let it Be" thing, and let's not forget the healing powers of the four-hour nap. When Serena Williams needs somewhere to turn to get away from whatever woes and cares befall her on a tennis court, we know where she goes—to the ace.

She goes down the pipe with a 120 M.P.H. turf scorcher, or out wide with a swinging 108 M.P.H. slice. She goes after it at 15-40, or 30-all. Today, just when Agnieszka Radwanska's comeback from a humiliating start seemed on the cusp of morphing into a remarkable upset, Serena sought comfort in her serve and found it against the zen princess of the WTA.

Trailing 1-2 in the third set, Serena toed the baseline and popped aces like a Pez dispenser, landing four—Bang!, Whap!, Smack!, Wham!—to hold the game without Radwanska taking a cut, never mind making contact with strings (preferable) or frame. Later, a reporter was foolish enough to ask if that was the first time Serena had fired off four straight aces in a game. She fixed him with a look and then said, "I do that all the time now. I did it in Madrid. I think I did it earlier in this tournament. That's my latest and greatest thing to do, is hitting four aces in a game. It's awesome."

Radwanska would have to agree, if not with the same degree of enthusiasm. After that four-of-a-kind game, the world No. 3 was broken from 30-all as Serena clubbed a hybrid smash/volley winner, and then punched out a service return that Radwanska could barely reach, but not put back into play.

That proved the key break of the match, although Serena would go on to add an insurance break with a beautifully disguised forehand drop shot when everyone in the stadium—including Radwanska—was expecting her to take a great big swing at a forehand. That deft move reminded everyone that just because you can crank out aces doesn't mean you have hands of stone—and it brought Serena one game closer to the final score, 6-1, 5-7, 6-2.

"No one hits more dropshots than me in practice," she explained. "I'm shocked I don't hit more in a match. Every other shot for me is a dropshot. Today when I hit (that shot), I didn't even think about it like, 'I'm going to hit a dropshot.' I thought she was going to run it down, but she didn't and I was so happy."

Still, it was those aces that added up to a turning point, as well as a symbolic punctuation mark of the tournament in which Serena served up a record number of them, 102—the last 17 coming today. Radwanska may traffic in question marks, but Serena is all about exclamation points.

Yet popular notion that this was a mismatch, and that Radwanska's serve would constitute easy pickin's for Serena, while the latter's serve would keep the threat of the Pole's ball striking at bay, was not entirely accurate. As Wojtek Fibak, the greatest player yet produced by Poland, said when I saw him shortly after the match, "Agnieszka is a genius; I saw it the first time I watched her play, about five years ago. She can put the ball anywhere on the court without even seeming to swing at it."

At the start today, Radwanska might have been happy to put the ball anywhere on the court, albeit not in the way Fibak meant. It was her first Grand Slam final, and she was in against a four-time Wimbledon champion. The weather was by turns sunny and overcast, chilly and blustery. The cold Radwanska has been fighting was one thing, the serve and intimidating presence of Serena quite another. If Radwanska had an extra set of hands, they too would have been full.

Error-prone and hesitant, Radwanska quickly fell behind 0-5 and managed to survive two set points, finally holding a game with a 100 M.P.H. ace. It was greeted with a burst of applause and, soon thereafter, spitting rain. When Serena easily served out the set, the grounds crews pulled out the tarps and covered the courts for a rain delay lasting almost half an hour.

The break proved a boon to Radwansa, who would say: "Well first of all, I was a little bit nervous in the beginning, especially being in my first final. I think I just wanted too much a little bit. I think the break was better for me just to cool down a little bit. When I was going on the court the second time, I just felt like a normal match. Didn't seem like a final anymore, so there was not that much pressure. But then I was just trying to do everything, you know, to play good tennis."

Radwanska may not (yet) be the best or most highly-ranked woman in the WTA, but she must be the most interesting. Her timing, as Fibak said, is almost preternatural—her swing is so slow that half the time you're surprised the ball pops back out from her racquet. There's something zen-like about the leisurely, almost lazy way she moves and how very little emotion she shows under the brim of that white visor, or in her body language in general. The emotion she expresses best, but even then in small doses, is disgust. When she flubs an easy return, she's likely to fling her arms in the air, but quickly gets back to the business at hand.

Radwanska also has a great talent for using the pace of an incoming shot against her opponent, which is the trademark of superb timing. For someone who looks almost frail, Radwanska is surprisingly athletic. And what about those familiar squat shots, hit as if she's actually decided to sit down on the court and, well, to heck with all the rest? It's more like a party trick than a weapon, but it's surprising how often it gets the job done.

That certainly was the case in the second set, when all of these uncommon qualities once again served to mesmerize an opponent. Serena knew that she didn't need to rush things, that Radwanska had little with which to hurt her. But poor tennis is often about hurting yourself, and Radwanska knows how to goad opponents into mistakes borne of sheer impatience and/or frustration. Serena experienced both of those negative emotions in the second set.

"I just got too anxious and I shouldn't have been so anxious," Serena said of the middle period of the match, during which Radwanska gave up an early break, but then suddenly found her precise game and ended up overcoming a 2-4 deficit to break twice in Williams' last three service games, the last time for the set. "There was no reason in particular. I just think that I was, you know, playing aggressive a little more than the first set. Then I have to give credit where credit's due. She started playing really, really well. She started playing excellent grass court tennis, getting a lot of balls back, and I panicked a little bit and I shouldn't have. I usually don't."

It takes a lot to make Serena panic, but then the ability to serve aces is a potent tonic. As a result, Serena now has 14 Grand Slam titles, including five Wimbledons—the same number as her sister Venus. Together, the Williams girls have won 10 of the last 13 Wimbledon Championships.

Pundits have spent many words and devoted a lot of time to celebrating the unique place the Williams sisters already occupy in the pantheon of sports, as well as delving into the murky psychology of having to meet your own flesh and blood in one-on-one combat. Or they did when those Venus versus Serena finals were a regular feature of the tour. What seems to have gone missing, though, is a good stong sense of the way the sisters might have benefited from the inspiration each one provides the other. Would Serena have five Wimbledon titles and 14 majors were she an only child?

"I don't know what I would have if Venus didn't exist," she said. "I don't even know if I would own a Grand Slam title or if I would play tennis, because we do everything together. Growing up I copied Venus, everything she did. She was a real big influence for me. So when she started winning, I wanted it so bad. When she became No. 1, I had to be No. 1. I had to work harder. I had to do everything in my power to get there. I have no idea what would happen if she wasn't around." 

This latest title moves Serena to within four major titles of Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert, and only one Open-era player has more—Steffi Graf. Serena is 30 years old now, but as Sue Barker said during the Centre Court interview immediately after the match, "Thirty is the new 20 in women's tennis"—to which Serena responded, "Well, yeah. Hell-ooooh."

She elaborated later on: "I have never felt better. This whole tournament I have pretty much been injury?free. I played so much. Normally I play two events, but this one was different because I played every day, two matches a day for a while. I haven't done that in a long time, and I felt great."

Feeling good hasn't always come easily to Serena since a somewhat bizarre and then life-threatening series of mostly unrelated events began shortly after she won here in 2010. She's essentially been a part-time player in the interim, hard-pressed to get healthy and in the flow of tournament play. There was a point while she was recovering from a potentially lethal pulmonary embolism when, she recalled, she didn't move from her couch for two days.

"I was praying, like I can't take any more. I've endured enough. Let me be able to get through this. I didn't give up. I was just so tired at that point. I had a tube in my stomach and it was draining constantly. Gosh, I mean, right before that I had the blood clot. I had lung problems. You know, then (earlier) I had two foot surgeries. It was a lot. It was a lot. I felt like I didn't do anything to bring on that. I felt like, uhm, I just felt down, the lowest of lows."

Today, having endured those lowest of lows also enabled her to fully savor the highest of highs. It was time to celebrate with—what else—the most exuberant shot in tennis, the ace, the one that most definitively says, "Here I am!" 

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