Saturday, January 30, 2010
A new beginning indeed for Serena
By Ravi Ubha ESPN.com
MELBOURNE, Australia -- There was an awkward moment in the first set of the women's final at the Australian Open on Saturday. Justine Henin hit a backhand volley close to the line, and Serena Williams miscued on the reply.
Hold the phone.
Williams walked to the chair umpire and claimed she heard an out call. At that instant, flashbacks of her U.S. Open tirade surfaced. Imagine if chair umpire Kerrilyn Cramer hadn't agreed.
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Alas, Williams was right, the point was replayed and the American headed back to the service line under the stars on a steamy night in Melbourne.
About 90 minutes later, Williams clinched her 12th major by topping the courageous Henin 6-4, 3-6, 6-2 in one of the wackiest finals of recent Grand Slam memory. Legendary Australian Margaret Court and pioneer Billie Jean King, whom Serena matched on the Slam leaderboard, were among those who witnessed the drama.
No, her outburst at Flushing Meadows won't be forgotten, but perhaps forgiven. Whether Williams should have been suspended for targeting an official still remains a topic of debate. The 28-year-old was threatened with a ban if anything similar happens in the future and fined $82,500.
When asked whether the title will help everyone to forget the U.S. Open diatribe, Serena said: "I don't really think about that myself. I feel like win, lose or draw, I'm here. I was here in the final and doing the best I could."
Williams proved she put the saga behind her by grinding out her last three matches at the tournament, while playing with a banged-up thigh, calf and wrist ailments and an iffy ankle. She looked like the English Patient.
"She was ready to move on and focused on doing the best she could do here," said Jill Smoller, her agent, before heading to the player cafe to join in celebrations. "I've been with her for a very long time and she still amazes me."
Williams thus continued her penchant for coming out fighting when feeling aggrieved. Six years ago, she was robbed by the chair ump in the U.S. Open quarterfinals, and guess what? Williams won the next major, in Australia.
Despite the loss, Justine Henin's performance in Australia was an auspicious beginning to her comeback.
Not competing in Indian Wells, Calif., since 2001, when dad Richard says he and Serena's sister, Venus, were racially abused, Serena Williams has won the ensuing big one on hard courts in the spring -- the Sony Ericsson Open in Miami -- five times.
"Serena is probably the most professional athlete I've met," said Williams' outgoing hitting partner, Sasha Bajin. "She can keep that stuff really [in the back of her mind]. She steps out on the court and it's tennis; otherwise she wouldn't be capable of playing the points she does, great points."
Williams became the first woman to repeat at the Australian Open since Jennifer Capriati in 2002 and the first women's top seed to win Down Under since Henin in 2004. Before Saturday, her victories at the Australian Open came in the odd years of 2003, '05, '07 and '09.
Victoria Azarenka, a fearless baseliner from Belarus, had Williams on the ropes in the quarterfinals, up a set and 4-0. Cue the comeback. In the semifinals, Williams blew a lead in the first set against China's Li Na, only to recover. Venus didn't have the same mental toughness against Li in the quarterfinals, unable to close out the encounter.
Williams doesn't make excuses when hurt, unlike some other pros (hello, one Serb in particular), and stuck with the doubles with Venus instead of taking a full day off Friday.
"She had a couple of tough matches, especially against Azarenka," said Bajin, showing his displeasure at drinking "girly" champagne rather than his preferred vodka. "Even if you have one leg, you just go out there and fight."
Serena's will to win was evidenced against the diminutive Henin, who employed an interesting game plan. Henin tried to match Williams for power, rarely using her penetrating and guileful slice, and kept everything virtually down the middle.
For a while it seemed mission accomplished.
Williams -- and this is perhaps unprecedented -- lost 15 straight points in one stretch. In another, Henin captured eight in a row.
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Williams, armed with the most potent serve in the women's game, won a cheap 59 percent of points behind the first delivery. One whizzed near Henin before bouncing, a keeper for the blooper reel. Henin, mind you, struggled on serve and chipped in six double faults.
"We know where she missed today," said Carlos Rodriguez, Henin's coach.
When she really needed it, though, down 1-0 in the third and facing two break points at 15-40, Williams hit four big bombs, including two aces.
"She's a real champion," Henin, deprived of an eighth major, said to reporters. "She plays the right shot at the right time."
That was that. Undone by the other comeback Belgian, Kim Clijsters, in New York, Williams made sure Henin's Australian Open didn't end in fairy-tale fashion.
"It was especially emotional for us," Bajin said. "Serena started well, then she kind of laid back a little bit and it slipped out of her hand. Justine stepped it up. I'm glad Serena got it back."
For the well-behaved Serena, it's 12 -- and counting.
Ravi Ubha is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.