Australian Open: S. Williams d. Hantuchova

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You take what you can get from Serena Williams these days, even if it isn’t a whole lot—as Daniela Hantuchova learned once again in her third-round clash with the American in Rod Laver Arena. 

Williams walked away with a 6-3, 6-3 win, and while Hantuchova was unable to earn a set, or more aces than double faults (she hit two of each), she did earn the distinction of being the first woman at this Australian Open to break Serena’s serve—an improbable if noteworthy occurrence that transpired at 6-3, 3-2 in the second set. 

Forget about how Williams broke Hantuchova four times, that’s ho-hum news. Here’s how Hantuchova became the first woman to crack the code on Williams’ 23rd service game of the tournament: 

At 0-15, Williams tried a drop shot, and Hantuchova’s sharply angled cross-court response proved un-returnable. Then, Hantuchova hit an inside-out forehand winner. With break point, Hantuchova swallowed hard and tagged an inside-out forehand winner, and that was it. Seemed easy. So how come it only happens once in a blue moon?

Remember that sequence of events, for you’re unlikely to see them repeated in the near future.

Before the match, Hantuchova had complained about having the misfortune to be of the same generation as the Williams sisters, Venus and Serena. She suggested, quite accurately, that the sisters “kind of ruined my grand slam career.” 

Hantuchova wasn’t being overly dramatic: Her combined record against the sisters before this match was 2-18, eight of those losses inflicted by Serena, six of them at Grand Slam events. Hantuchova has a right to feel unlucky, if not downright bitter.

In fact, the only time Hantuchova made it to the semis of a major (Australian Open, 2008), she did it without having to face either of the sisters.

Note, of course, that Hantuchova did not go on to win that tournament, so the Williamses clearly have not been the only thing standing between her and world domination. The reality is that Hantuchova, a 30-year-old Slovak once ranked No. 5, is a somewhat reckless if dangerous ball smacker. She takes big cuts and frequently has trouble keeping the ball in the court. Often, she seems to get ahead of herself, and there’s an unnecessary urgency about the way she plays. 

Of course, those can also be the makings of an unpredictable, dangerous player, for when those balls start falling in, she can hit anyone off the court. Hantuchova has, after all, won Indian Wells twice.

Williams actually looked vulnerable in the first few games of this one; she was sluggish, unfocused, and potentially testy. After a pair of holds for 1-1, she found herself in a hole at 15-40. She dispatched the first break point with a solid approach and backhand volley winner, reached deuce with an ace, collected the ad thanks to a Hantuchova backhand error and held the game with—what else?—an ace.

Hantuchova held for 2-all, and jumped to a 0-30 lead in the next game. But Serena got back to 30-all and cracked a pair of aces for 3-2. The pressure at that point was too much for Hantuchova. At 15-30 she went for it all with a monstrous kicker second serve, but shanked it into the geraniums. An un-returned forehand approach shot by Williams then secured the break.

Williams subsequently held for 5-2, but Hantuchova regained her composure. She held to stay within reach at 3-5, and she even had a look at a couple of break points (her fourth and fifth of the match) in the next game. But from 15-40, Serena’s third shot was a forehand winner, and she closed out the set with a pair of aces followed by a perfect drop shot.

One of Serena’s strengths is that she tends to avoid letdowns in the wake of successful sets. The last thing you want to do after losing a set to her is give up a break, but that’s just what Hantuchova did to start the second set. As the next three games rolled by, it seemed that the match was scripted, but Hantuchova had a surprise in store—the service break that suddenly leveled it at 3-all. 

Alas, she was broken with a vengeance in the very next game, and there’s probably a lesson in there somewhere. Williams had been successful on all three break points she had faced to that point, while Hantuchova had been able to convert just one of six. An easy hold gave Williams a 5-3 lead.

Williams was unable to extend her perfect break-point conversion rate in the final game; she squandered three break/match points—before she snapped to and finished off Hantuchova with a heavy, down-the-line, forehand winner.

Stat of the Match: Serena’s first-serve conversion rate was a woeful 48 percent (27 of 56), yet she hit 10 aces, including many on second serves.

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