LONDON -- An ill wind blows for anyone who faces Serena Williams across the net this summer. Saturday, it swirled around Centre Court during the women's singles gold medal match, altering the flight of any ball hit with less than maximum pace. As the medals were being presented, a rogue gust detached the U.S. flag -- which hung higher than the others, as most would have anticipated -- from its horizontal perch and sent it sailing into the stands.
Maria Sharapova's serve is not her strong suit under any circumstances, but the weather itself didn't defeat her. Williams' two-month on-court tropical storm -- a pattern with few lulls and with dead calm at its center here at the Olympics -- inundated her.
Williams' 63-minute, 6-0, 6-1 victory set some statistical marks and raised the lovely ghost of French icon Suzanne Lenglen, whose 1920 final was previously the shortest in terms of games. But the real significance of the championship played four weeks to the day after Williams won her fifth Wimbledon title was her absolute refusal to let down even for a point -- and this after she had dropped a total of 17 games in five straight-set wins in the previous week.
"I think I was just focused," Williams said. "I don't think she did anything wrong.''
Routs of this magnitude might seem straightforward, but, in truth, it's not always easy to stay in the zone. Up 4-0 and returning serve, the mind can drift. A second of complacency can unravel a rally and prop open a window for the rain to come in. Sharapova graciously acknowledged Williams' lethal combination of power plus power of concentration, and compared her aura to Novak Djokovic's in his 70-6 season in 2011.
"It's not just within the match, it's also keeping that level throughout a tournament and then going into another and keeping that same level," Sharapova said. "I think that was something that was so impressive about what Novak did last year.
"I mean, it's one thing to play great tennis at an event, play seven matches. But to mentally and physically get up in the morning and repeat that. … Every athlete wants to have a feeling of confidence, but it's to carry that feeling and to have that desire and motivation.''
Bob Bryan said Williams' relentlessness inspired him on the way to winning doubles gold with brother Mike in the match that immediately followed hers.
"I watched her face during the match,'' he said. "I don't know, I just try to take her type of tunnel vision, intensity onto the court, and it worked. I kept thinking, 'She can do it, play with that kind of fire, so can we.'''
Williams has held her peak, with one notable exception, since April, winning on clay at Charleston and Madrid, on grass at Wimbledon, and on hard court at Stanford. Since a shocking collapse at Roland Garros in the first round of the French Open in late May, she has won 17 straight matches.
Perhaps most pertinently, Williams has owned Sharapova for years. The Russian beat her twice in 2004 but has not broken through in nine matches since and last took a set from Williams in 2008.
However elevated Williams' confidence was as she walked into one of her favorite venues -- "The grass suits me,'' she said with conscious understatement -- she knew she was facing the only other active female player with a career Grand Slam and bore down accordingly. The Centre Court crowd quickly sensed the direction of the tide and watched respectfully, occasionally rousing when Sharapova created an opportunity for herself. Sharapova's face betrayed little except after the lone game she won, when she mustered one of her trademark fist pumps.
Williams marched on implacably. Her biggest challenge at times in the match was keeping her lionesslike mane of hair out of her face. She finished off Sharapova with a second-serve ace and a first-serve rocket and began pogoing up and down as her family celebrated in the stands. Her prevailing sentiment appeared to be exuberance, a different vibe from the poignant expression and words that followed her win at Wimbledon, when she spoke about her health scares of the past year and paid tribute to her sister, with whom she will play for a third Olympic doubles title Sunday.
"I had to copy you,'' she said then of equaling Venus' five Wimbledon titles. Saturday, she did so again, matching Venus' 2000 singles title in Sydney and completing her set with the ease with which she talks people into trading Olympic pins, her biggest passion here other than winning. Serena is the one with the wind at her back now while everyone else looks down at broken umbrellas.