Only Serena can beat Serena
The seeds have been announced. And if it always has been Serena Williams' world in imagination, so it is again in deed. As summer approached, the truth was that if she was in the draw and healthy, regardless of seed or ranking, Williams was considered the favorite in every tournament.
This was true even though Williams hadn't won a major since Wimbledon in 2010, but none of the headliners of the women's game -- Caroline Wozniacki, Maria Sharapova, Victoria Azarenka -- could claim a mandate over her.
Today, the imagination and the results have again aligned. A year that began with losses to Ekaterina Makarova at the Australian Open and Virginie Razzano at Roland Garros (in the first round, no less) continues at Flushing Meadows with Williams again holding the title of the dominant figure in the women's game on the court. Wimbledon was hers, and so was Olympic gold, in both in singles and doubles.
The Serena narrative leading up to the London Games centered on the singles gold medal she lacked to complete her trophy case. But her year might not truly be complete until she avenges her past two spectacular disappointments in New York. Serena not only lost to Kim Clijsters (2009 semifinals) and Samantha Stosur (2011 final), respectively, but clashes with officials marred each match. (She withdrew from the 2010 U.S. Open because of injury.)
Williams hasn't won the Open since 2008, but all of it, the infamous meltdown against Clijsters, the loss to Stosur, the defeat to Razzano in Paris, feels so distant in comparison to the Williams supernova that began at Wimbledon, where she served up 102 aces against just 10 double faults in winning the title. This was highlighted by the breathtaking 49-second, four-serve, four-ace game in the third set of the final against Agnieszka Radwanska that righted her momentum. It continued throughout the Olympics in a 6-0, 6-1 total devastation of the shrieking and broken Sharapova in the gold-medal match.
What is left? Serena at the height of her powers (14 singles majors, 13 doubles, four gold medals) and a field that isn't simply trying to discover itself as much as it is attempting to repair itself after being personally scarred by her. Williams' on-the-court prowess makes her so dangerous an opponent, but just as impressive is her ability to detect and humiliate a threat.
In a women's game, in which holding serve is a challenge, Williams possesses the greatest weapon in the sport. For there is no facet of the game either on the men or women's side in which the gap is greater than between Williams' serve and her opponents. John Isner can serve, but so can Ivo Karlovic and Milos Raonic and Roger Federer. No one in the women's game controls serve like Serena Williams.
But Williams also knows whom she must beat. Take, for example, Williams, who's No. 4 in the WTA rankings, versus the rest of the top 10:
No. 1 Azarenka: The world No. 1 and top seed at the U.S. Open has lost to Serena seven straight times, including in the semifinals at Wimbledon and the Olympics. She's lost 10 straight sets to Williams, having not won one since the quarters of the 2010 Australian Open. They've met twice in finals, with each player winning one apiece.
No. 2 Radwanska: The surging Radwanska is 0-3 in her career against Williams, but they've met only once in the past four years. That was in this year's Wimbledon final, where Williams destroyed Radwanska in the first set, then lost her way in the second before serving her way home in the third.
No. 3 Sharapova: She is 2-9 against Williams and hasn't won a match since 2004, but that isn't all: For all of Sharapova's shrieking and screaming and intimidating against the rest of the field, Sharapova and Williams have a nail-hammer relationship. Serena lost consecutive matches to Sharapova in 2004, the Wimbledon final and the final in Los Angeles, but has now won eight straight. Their past three matches, all in the past year, have gone by scores of 6-1, 6-3 (Stanford quarters, 2011), 6-1, 6-3 (Madrid quarters, 2012) and 6-0, 6-1 (London gold-medal match, 2012). Interestingly, they've never met at Flushing Meadows.
No. 5 Petra Kvitova: Kvitova is 0-3 against Serena, having lost to her twice at Wimbledon (including this year's quarters) and once in Melbourne.
No. 6 Angelique Kerber: She beat Williams 4 and 4 in Cincinnati, but Williams controlled the match but not her forehand. Kerber is the fast climber on tour and has the kind of power game that can give Williams problems.
No. 7 Stosur: She trails Serena 6-3 in their head-to-heads, but since beating Williams 6-2, 6-3 in the final here last year, Stosur has lost on hard court and clay to Serena. Stosur has the kind of hard-hitting game that matches well with Williams.
No. 8 Wozniacki: She's 1-5 versus Serena, including a 6-0, 6-3 loss at the Olympics.
No. 9 Li Na: She trails Serena 5-1. Li advanced in Rome when Serena withdrew in May, but the last time she beat the American came at Stuttgart way back in 2008.
No. 10 Sara Errani: She's 0-3 against Williams, but the two haven't met since 2009.
Like Roger Federer at Wimbledon, Williams' dominating tear has resurrected her at or near the top of the greatest-of-all-time leaderboard. The conversation at Flushing will once more be Serena against the field. She is the greatest front-runner of her time, but as Stosur showed last year, the key to beating her is to not buckle under her onslaught of serves and intimidation, to fight and make her feel the pressure of being in a fight.
It is a blueprint easy to devise, but with the way Williams has played since losing at Roland Garros, it's far more difficult to execute.
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