Since losing the championship in straight sets to Samantha Stosur at the 2011 US Open, Serena Williams is at supernova, a 94-6 record with two majors and an Olympic gold medal. She has won 24 consecutive matches entering next week's French Open. She regained the world No. 1 ranking, finally putting an end to the statistical ruse that there was anyone in the world better, former top-spot holders Caroline Wozniacki, Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka all underdogs against her despite being top-ranked.
The aura of Serena -- how she treats Sharapova (who crushes the rest of the women's tour) as if she were gum on the bottom of her shoe, how she made Azarenka wilt at last year's US Open final when it was Azarenka who was up 5-2 in the third, how the top five have a better chance of winning Powerball than beating her in a big tournament -- is well documented.
But intimidation is far secondary to the efficiency and power of her game. They are the reason she's so intimidating. Even though (or perhaps because) she hasn't won the French Open since 2002, she is easily the sublime favorite this year. More than being able to scare her opponents into leaving their forehands in the locker room, Serena represents a question of simple mathematics that produces overwhelming advantages.
When she won Rome, it was by scores of 6-2, 6-2 (Laura Robson), 6-0, 6-1 (Dominika Cibulkova), 6-2, 6-0 (Carla Suarez Navarro), 6-3, 6-0 (Simona Halep) and finally 6-1, 6-3 over Azarenka. A cumulative game advantage of 60-14 over five matches, an average of three games lost per match. This is not a misprint.
Her first advantage is that she is, quite simply, the best women's player on every surface, a fact that at first seems obvious but in fact is historically rare in tennis. In the men's game, there isn't a player who is the clear favorite on every surface. When Pete Sampras was the best tennis player in the world, he wasn't on clay. For Rafael Nadal's dominance on clay, there is Roger Federer's advantage on grass and indoor hard courts. For Federer's superiority on grass, there is Novak Djokovic's power on hard courts. For all of Djokovic's absorbing run at No. 1, he has had to deal with Nadal on clay. Andy Murray is also a terrific hard-court player, just as Nadal is on grass. With the men, changing surfaces changes opportunities.
Not so with Williams. Like Steffi Graf, Williams is the best clay-court player and the best on hard courts, indoors or out. She is by far the best grass-court player in the world. Conversely, her main challengers change positions depending on the surface.
The Williams serve has been called the greatest in the history of tennis, but the true advantage of her serve is generally understated. According to the WTA Media Information System, Williams leads the tour with 227 aces, 79 more than Sabine Lisicki. Of the top players, only Sharapova ranks in the top 10 in this category, with 141, but Williams has double-faulted just 83 times, while Sharapova donates more free points on her serve than she receives with aces, netting a staggering 163 double faults.
The gap between Williams and the rest of the field is too enormous to simply suggest her scowl is more fearsome than that of, say, Francesca Schiavone. When she beat Azarenka 6-3, 7-6 (6) in the 2012 Wimbledon semifinals, Williams served 24 aces to zero double faults. Azarenka served one ace and four double faults. Few players can overcome such a deficit, but in that match Azarenka returned only 48 percent of all of Williams' serves.
In other words, Azarenka was challenged with beating Williams having already given away 52 percent of her chances to put the ball in play.
It wasn't just Azarenka. For the tournament, Williams served 102 aces in seven matches. The next closest total was Lisicki's 34 in five matches. It was the rough equivalent of Williams starting the tournament on a curve by giving Williams 68 more points than anybody else.
The women's game is notorious for the inability for many players to hold serve. In 2013, Sara Errani is first on tour in first-serve percentage at 84.1 percent, but isn't anywhere near the top in first-serve points won. Williams' first-serve percentage isn't great, around 60 percent, but because of her ability to hit aces and have so many serves go unreturned, she has won 75.7 percent of her first-serve points, best in the game. Sharapova is fifth at 70.7 percent, but no other top-10 player is in the top 10 in the free-points category. Williams owns an ace-to-double fault ratio of 3-1, best on tour. The next closest to her in the top 10 is Wozniacki, who ranks 33rd on tour of players who have played at least 15 matches over the past year. Big-hitting Petra Kvitova, who won Wimbledon in 2011 and is an erratic top-10 player, has dropped a whopping 187 double faults against 124 aces.
The rest of the numbers are equally staggering on every surface, offensively and defensively. On grass, Williams' ace-to-double fault ratio is 9.92-1. The next closest of top-10 players is Agnieszka Radwanska, at 2.09-1. Williams averages 6.31 aces per match in 2013, best in the game.
In destroying Azarenka in Rome last week, Williams forced 16 break points on Azarenka's serve. Azarenka saved 10, which only meant she was broken six times. Azarenka and Sharapova are, statistically, ranked higher as returners, but both attack the field in a way they cannot attack Williams. There's the technique, but the scowl matters, too. Williams is 42-5 combined against the next top five players, Sharapova, Azarenka, Radwanska, Errani and Li Na.
Her ferocity is obvious, but there is no greater gap in tennis than between Serena Williams' offensive and defensive prowess and the rest of the field. It is virtually impossible to beat a player who is allowing only half of her serves to be returned while returning as well as she does. Williams is scoring so many points with her serve, and is so stingy in giving them away, that the rest of the field, the big-serving Sharapova included (whose ace-to-double fault ratio is a dismal 0.85-1, while Azarenka's is even worse at 0.35-1), are so far behind her, they must play a perfect match to win.