Normally a tennis player will tighten up while serving for a match, or for a set, or when he or she gets to a tiebreaker. It’s rare, however, to see one become so nervous about getting on the scoreboard that she struggles to hit the ball over the net. But that’s what happened to Carla Suarez Navarro when she faced Serena Williams on Saturday in Miami. Serving at 0-1, with a chance to win the game, Suarez Navarro double-faulted twice before finally squeaking out a hold. This was unusual, but in the Spaniard’s case it wasn't surprising. When she played Serena at the U.S. Open two years ago, she suffered a humiliating double-bagel defeat in Ashe Stadium, and on her birthday to boot—not the kind of loss you forget easily. Avoiding a repeat of that sad disaster was job one for Suarez Navarro on Sunday; from the beginning, the pressure was on to win a game.

Mission accomplished.


It turned out that Suarez Navarro was right to be anxious about getting her game in early, before Serena woke up and loosened up. She would win just one more, as Serena rolled to the Miami Open title, 6-2, 6-0, in 56 minutes. Those scores could, technically, have been worse, but few finals on either tour in 2015 will be as one-sided as this one. Serena won 56 points to her opponent’s 24, and 21 of 22 points on her first serve. Suarez Navarro managed to take two of the first four games, but when she gave away the break at 2-3 with a series of errors, Serena relaxed and was on her way.

This is obviously a bad match-up for the 5’4” Suarez Navarro. She has played Serena five times, and the 10 sets have gone like this: 6-0, 6-3, 6-2, 6-0, 6-0, 6-0, 6-2, 6-3, 6-2, 6-0, all in Serena's favor. You might think that, with her long topspin strokes, Suarez Navarro would have more success on clay, but you would be wrong: Serena has won both of their matches on dirt with ease.

Carla’s shots sit up for Serena, and her one-handed backhand, as nice as it is to watch, doesn’t give her much chance to counter-punch with pace. One good angle is all Serena needs to gain an overwhelming edge in a point.

“The key,” Serena said afterward, “was to stay focused and not let her play her game, because she’s so good at it.”


Elite Eight

Elite Eight

Serena didn’t say what Suarez Navarro’s game is, exactly, or what she's so good at. Which is too bad, because when these two face each other, it’s hard to know. Despite being No. 12 in the world, Suarez Navarro doesn’t compete as if she has any notion that beating the American is a possibility. On Sunday, her coach tried a few ideas out on her when he visited on changeovers, but I didn’t see her attempt to put those plans into action, or change the pattern of play in any significant way.

Still, beating Serena when she’s serving this well is a tough ask for anyone. She made 61 percent of first balls and hit seven aces; while we didn’t know it at the time, the two she hit to hold serve at 2-2 in the opening set were, as Brad Gilbert would say, “trunk slammers.” The match was five games old, but Suarez Navarro's last hope had already been snuffed out.

Serena has now won in Miami eight times, and as Mary Jo Fernandez noted today, a win here often seems to set up the rest of her season. Not that she needs to have this one set up for her: Serena is 18-0 to start 2015.

“It feels really good to have eight under my belt,” she said on Sunday. “I’d like to believe the older I get, the better I get.”

It's hard to argue. Since she recovered fully from her health scare in the spring of 2011, when she was hospitalized for a pulmonary embolism, Serena has been as close to unbeatable as any player in history. From the start of 2012 through today, Serena is 236-12, for a winning percentage of 93.6. In the Open era, Chris Evert’s career winning percent of 89.6 is the highest by any player, man or woman.

(Serena herself is actually not so sure that she has improved with age. When she was asked by Brad Gilbert after the match who would win between the 33-year-old Serena and the 23-year-old Serena, she wasn’t willing to throw her younger self under the bus. “I was pretty tough at 23,” she said. She sounded like a fan of the younger Serena.)

Of course, the 33-year-old version wasn’t perfect in Miami. She dropped sets to Sabine Lisicki and Simona Halep; she got off to a slow start in the former match, and struggled to close in the latter. Her first-serve percentage was down in the 40s much of the time, and she admitted to taking some pace off it in the final—she could afford to against Suarez Navarro. In general, Serena was even more critical of herself than usual this week. She punctuated her press conferences with comments like, “I won, but I feel like I lost,” “I didn’t have my serve,” “I improvised my way to the final.”


Elite Eight

Elite Eight

Unlike most players, though, Serena’s negativity doesn’t betray a lack of confidence, especially in her ability to win. It does the opposite: She gets negative because she has so much confidence in herself. In her mind, if she’s not dominating, she’s not doing something right.

Right now, who can blame her? Even with her occasional hiccups, Serena is still as far ahead of the WTA field as ever. That’s partly because the WTA field isn’t doing much to catch up at the moment. Halep aside, this hasn’t been a promising spring hard-court swing for the rest of the Top 10. Maria Sharapova, Caroline Wozniacki, Ana Ivanovic, Eugenie Bouchard, and Agnieszka Radwanska all lost earlier than expected at both Indian Wells and Miami, and a tired Petra Kvitova pulled out of both.

That leaves the tireless Serena, at 33, all alone again, even farther up the mountaintop. While she might not be as perfect as she would like, when your opponent in a big final is nervous about winning a single game, you must be doing something right.