Serena Williams is widely acclaimed as, arguably, the best female tennis player of all-time. And rightly so. It’s an especially interesting conversation when it proceeds from the question, “If your life were in the hands of one player in one match, who would it be?”
Martina Navratilova was a spectacular shotmaker, but her confidence was easily corroded when she felt threatened or pressured. Chris Evert was a glacial, majestic competitor—but, oh, that puffball serve! Steffi Graf had the toughness of Evert and a solid but conspicuously DIY set of strokes, highlighted by an excellent forehand and a backhand she almost always had to slice.
What do you say when it comes to Serena? After everyone agrees that she probably has the best serve ever seen in women’s tennis, the conversation quickly turns to her “toughness,” or the “intimidation factor” created by her fearless shotmaking and zest for competition.
But rarely is there much discussion of specific elements in her game. Style by Aneres, fine; But Techniques and Tactics by Serena? Never. But I can think of a few components that make her game distinctive as well as lethal. Three of them (the first three below) are made possible partly but not elusively by her base strength—power that has enabled her to take technique and tactics to places previously unknown in women’s tennis, but perhaps also destined to re-shape it.
1. Her old-school forehand: This is an era of radical forehands. Many players on both the ATP and WTA tours love to hit it big, with spin, and to go inside-out, which encourages them to use what coach Robert Landsdorp calls the “buggy-whip” follow through—the stroke ends on the same side of the body where it began.
Rafael Nadal’s vicious cuts and their success has added to this trend, and now many players—including Serena’s rival Victoria Azarenka—often finish the forehand with an overhead flourish that reminds us of the spinning rotors of a helicopter. Call it the “’Copter finish.”
Compared to these exaggerated if often effective strokes, Williams’ forehand is a thing of stately and stable beauty. It’s classic, and no less efficient for it (you can tell by how diligently her opponents avoid it).
Yes, there’s still a player whose bread-and-butter is the heavy, deep, cross-court forehand, with the racquet-arm ending up wrapped around above the opposite shoulder. And it still pulls opponents way off court because cross-court is where a forehand naturally wants to go, and in so doing it opens up the backhand side of a right-handed opponent. Williams’ forehand, with its weight, relative lack of spin, and penetration, is the best forehand in the women’s game.
2. Her new-school backhand: In the open stance, the ball is addressed with the shoulders parallel with the net rather than perpendicular to it. The forehand version has been with us for quite some time, albeit with greater success on the men’s tour (something about the way men generate power through trunk rotation). But the open-stance backhand is a relatively new development and few women have the strength or training to use it.
Nobody hits the backhand from quite as open a stance as Williams, and she uses it so effectively mainly because of her superior strength. The open-stance backhand isn’t the prettiest shot; in fact, it seems fair to say that Williams muscles the ball perhaps a little more than she should on that side. But the stance also enables Williams to disguise the ensuing shot effectively, and it certainly saves her a lot of footwork—even if her command of the technique invites her to be lazy. When she’s not on her game, she often gets caught flat-footed on the backhand side.
Williams can hit that backhand like a pull hitter in baseball. The open stance allows her to go inside-out with the backhand—a technique and a tactic very few players have mastered with anything like Williams’ skill.
It’s pretty amazing to think that Williams does almost the opposite of everyone else. She goes cross-court with the forehand and—frequently—inside-out with the backhand. That requires a real adjustment by her opponents, and it makes them uneasy. Players often look uneasy during matches against Serena. That’s not just because of intimidation; it’s also the crossed signals sent by Williams’ unique game.
3. Her serve as weapon: Credit Williams not just for having a potent serve, but for impressing upon all her peers the value and importance of the shot. In this, Williams is making a truly valuable contribution to the game, and the way young women are taught to play and develop their tools may never be the same.
Apart from the natural gifts that make Williams’ serve so formidable (these include her marvelously simple toss and action, as well as her placement of the ball), there’s also the attitude, which may be another WTA game changer. Williams wants to use her serve—even her second serve—to win points outright, while too many women want mostly not to double fault, or see a return drilled by them. Williams has lit the path, and some youngsters (think Sabine Lisicki) already are following it. That’s good news for the game.
4. She never gives up on a game: When you have Williams’ tools, you’ve never lost a game until the scoreboard says so. In all of Williams’ matches, you can see how she’s always lurking, always ready to pounce. Few players are as good at maintaining this level of alertness, which can’t really be described as confidence. It’s a talent, rather than an attitude, honed over many years and by the rewards it has accumulated.
5. Her soft hands: Williams is that relative rarity on the WTA, a player whose power and strength are complimented and enhanced by excellent touch. As her brilliant doubles record suggests, Williams has a terrific volley thanks to her feel and racquet control. If anything, she could do more to exploit her light touch and excellent racquet work at the net. While Williams has a good drop shot and isn’t afraid to use it, I’d like to see her use it more often. As the need to conserve energy becomes a greater priority in the late stages of her career, I look for her to do just that.
And let’s remember, her work isn’t finished yet.
If you enjoy reading Pete Bodo at TENNIS.com, you might also be interested in his latest novel, The Reckoning. A revised version of this father-son story set in the Rocky Mountains has just been issued by e-publisher Diversion Books. Click here for more on this grand adventure tale, or to download the book.