A lot of the talk this week in tennis has been about Maria Sharapova’s outstanding record on clay, but at the end of the Italian Open, it was once again Serena Williams accepting the winner’s trophy. She earned it with a win over Sara Errani, the 5’4” dynamo who specializes in breaking down bigger, stronger, swifter—but never tougher—opponents.
Unfortunately, Errani suffered a hip flexor injury late in the first set of today's final. If there was any question about the outcome by that time—and there certainly was—the injury resolved it. With a 6-3, 6-0 win in 1:11, Williams improved her clay-court record since mid-2011 to 53-2.
Errani entered this final averaging just two games per set against Williams, whom she hadn’t beaten in six tries. But she had an intriguing advantage in the often toxic (to foreign players) combination of an Italian home crowd, stoked beyond the ordinary by the magnitude of the occasion. Rafaella Reggi was the last Italian woman to play a final in the Foro Italico. The year was 1985.
From the outset, it seemed clear that Williams’ ability to remain cool and to play within herself was the key to this clash. From a technical perspective, her great advantage was a comparative one: Her serve is the most potent weapon in the women’s game, while Errani’s can be attacked at will.
The only issue is whether, while salivating in the throes of such opportunity, an opponent can remain cool can stick the ball in the court. This Williams did.
Still, it wasn’t an easy first set for Williams despite the ease with which she bolted to a 2-0 lead. Errani had a break point in the next game, which Williams survived with a lucky let cord shot that Errani just couldn’t reach in time. When Williams also won the next point thanks to a letcord, the crowd began to harass and boo her. But it never got out of hand, and Williams never seemed distracted. She led 3-0.
Errani’s next break-back chance came in the fifth game, with Williams leading 3-1. Williams uncharacteristically froze up before she hit a smash and drove it into the net. Given that Errani was fighting a fairly impressive guerrilla war, you had to wonder if Williams was beginning to succumb to the pressure. The ace she hit to wipe away the ensuing break point provided a good answer.
Errani held for 2-4 and then mounted another assault on the Williams serve—this time a successful one. At deuce, Errani pulled up short in the middle of the rally after a Williams shot to the baseline. The chair umpire ran down and confirmed that the ball was out. It was just the kind of situation that makes a player wonder if she’s being robbed. Furthermore, Errani converted the break point when Williams distractedly drove a forehand into the net. It was then 4-3, Williams, on serve.
But Williams then did what she does best to retain control of the devolving situation. She blasted two terrific serve returns to jump to a 0-30 lead on Errani’s serve. An even better return was untouchable and gave Williams triple break point. She hammered home another forehand service return winner.
Errani barely made a move for that last shot and went right to the umpire’s chair to have her left upper thigh examined. She left the court for a long injury time-out and returned with a heavily-wrapped thigh. Williams served out the set with ease thanks to two aces and a service-return error by Errani on set point.
It turned out that the hip flexor injury was much more serious than it appeared when Errani first returned to the court, and she provided only token resistance as Williams raced to the win without losing another game.