If You Come at the Queen...

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MELBOURNE—Serena Williams took her time making her way into Rod Laver Arena on Sunday afternoon. This wasn't unusual; no tennis player has perfected the you’re-not-going-to-rush-me walk of authority the way Serena has. The local Australian television commentators wondered, jokingly, if she wanted to spend a little extra time showing off the Nike blazer that, because of the hellacious heat here last week, she hadn’t been able to wear yet.

But even after Serena shed the jacket, she was moving more sluggishly than normal. In the opening games of her fourth-rounder with Ana Ivanovic, I noticed that she wasn’t taking the final adjustment step that she normally takes to hit her backhand—she was hitting it with a pure open stance, her body parallel to the net. Not surprisingly, she was also missing it. Again, this wasn’t out of the ordinary. Serena has her sluggish days; she’d had one in her last match, against Daniela Hantuchova, and still won 6-3, 6-3. With a 17-time Grand Slam champion, you have to assume the best, until proven otherwise. Today, at 2-1 in the first set, when Serena dropped another backhand into the net, I wrote in my notebook: “SW not bringing out the big guns yet?” I thought she might be trying out a little of the old  rope-a-dope.

Nope—there was no rope to hold Serena up, and no dope on the other side of the court. Williams dropping backhands, and then forehands, and then a few serves, into the net. She made 31 unforced errors for the match, 17 of them from the backhand side, a number that feels low. Serena spent most of the third set gesturing in frustration after yet another ground stroke went straight into the middle of the net. She never started taking that final adjustment step.

Afterward, we found out one reason why. Serena’s coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, let the world know that she had hurt her back in practice earlier this week and had considered pulling out against Hantuchova. 

Asked about the injury in her press conference, Serena laughed and asked back, “And how do you know that?” But she wasn’t accepting any excuses for herself. She went on to say, rightly, “It was all Ana today.”

It was all Ana today, for almost all three sets; she had chances to win the first one, but didn’t have the belief yet. Ivanovic, firing away on her returns and timing everything sweetly, broke Serena at 2-2, but was broken back immediately at love. Ivanovic did the same thing at 2-2 in the second, but this time she held for 4-2, with a little help from Serena’s errant backhand. At that stage, few people in the stadium believed in Ana’s chances to win the next two sets, but she was one of them. And that, as it often is, was the difference.

“I actually believed,” said Ivanovic, a world-class ball-striker who has had more downs than ups since falling out of the Top 10 five years ago. “I had some confidence coming into today’s match...I just stayed in the moment physically. I didn’t think much about the occasion and who I was playing, because it can get overwhelming.”

Ivanovic said that some of that new self-assurance had come from beating Serena’s sister, Venus, two weeks ago in Auckland—it was her first win over either of the sisters in six years. Ivanovic played boldly in her last match in Melbourne as well, when she came back from a set down to beat Sam Stosur. By the end of that one, it looked like the Ana of old, as if all of the ancient, forgotten, seemingly fossilized confidence from her glory years had begun flowing into her racquet again. 

As she did against Stosur, Ivanovic played this match with no-holds-barred aggression. She took Serena’s serve on the rise and clocked it for down-the-line winners—her backhand return, so awkward on other days, was a miracle of hatchet-like concision today. As Ana said later, Serena wasn’t serving her hardest—her first serve averaged 106 M.P.H.—but she still hit 13 aces.

“I’m the kind of player that I like to control the points,” Ivanovic said afterward, “and I also like to be aggressive, and I just have to believe in it.”

Since last July, Ivanovic has been working with an all-Serbian coaching and training team for the first time, a set-up that she says makes her feel more at ease on tour. Whoever devised her strategy of pre-emptive, blast-first-and-ask-questions-later tennis was onto something; it’s clearly the way to go for her.. One, she has the hands to take the ball on the rise; and two, it keeps her from having to think too much, or worry about her decision-making, which even she acknowledges is not in her best interest. Serena wasn’t moving at top speed today, but for much of the match it didn’t matter—Ivanovic put the ball past her for winners 33 times, and had her on the defensive from the start of many other rallies.

As for Serena, she was one of the few people in the building who wasn’t stunned by what she saw from Ana.

“I've been watching her play a lot,” Williams said. “I think I have seen her perform well. She hit a lot of great shots today. I wasn’t surprised at all.”

The opposite was true of herself, according to Serena. “I made a tremendous amount of errors," she said, "shots I haven’t missed since the ‘80s.” (Serena was born in 1981; so those were indeed bad misses.)

The question for some will be whether Ivanovic’s win deserves an asterisk, to downgrade it because of Serena’s injury. I don’t think so. I think we can acknowledge that Serena was hurt, without taking a single thing away from Ivanovic’s win. According to Mouratoglou, Serena's back pain was worse against Hantuchova, yet she still won that match. Ivanovic could have lost this one, but she didn’t. Up a break in the third set, she could have succumbed to nerves; I admit that I was fully expecting her to succumb to them. Serena forced her to serve it out, and she did. As they say, if you come at the queen, you best not miss. Ana didn't.

And she took special satisfaction in that fact. 

“I’m very pleased with that,” Ivanovic said of her ability to close it out. “In the last service game, I just tried to do the same things I had been doing throughout the whole match.”

There was a heady buzz in Laver Arena today as the impossible slowly began to turn possible. Williams had her supporters, but Ivanovic had more. At first, like her, they weren’t sure whether to believe, but they became increasingly excited and voluble as Ivanovic made the turn through the second set and headed down the homestretch at full speed. It was one of those infrequent, and thus special, days in tennis when a former champion finds her way out of the abyss of nerves and uncertainty and inconsistency and puts it all together again, exactly the way most of us stopped believing she could. "It’s never too late" is a nice message to hear now and then.

Or, as Ivanovic said, in her motormouthed way, put it later: 

“It’samazing. Imean,thisvictorymeanssomuchtome. And,you know,Iworkedsohardandallthehardwork. Youknow,it’spayingoff.

It’s OK, Ana, we know how you feel. You just beat Serena Williams. Say no more.

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