Here are five things we learned watching Serena Williams put a comprehensive beating on Maria Sharapova this afternoon in the Australian Open final:
1. Serena is back. A player ranked outside the top 80, who lost in the quarterfinals of a low-level event earlier this month, would not, conventionally, have a chance in hell of winning a Grand Slam title. But Serena Williams has never been about convention. (Note the lime green attire for starters.) She is stronger, faster, and more imposing than anyone else on tour. So much so that she can take off months at a time and still dominate. Serena got better with each match here and by the time she destroyed Sharapova today -- her most decisive win of the tournament -- she looked every bit the player who won four consecutive Slams earlier this decade. Almost ridiculing the entire tennis salon (self included), Serena is back on the short list of players who are threats to win every event they enter.
2. Fitness is overrated. I just spoke with Oracene Williams, Serena's reluctant coach. Unprompted, she admitted that Serena needed to improve her fitness. After this display in Melbourne, I say, "Why?" If she's in sub-optimal shape, it sure didn't show here. She never tired, even playing three-setters in heat. She got to every conceivable ball. She moved fine. And she sure didn't lack power. Granted no one else is blessed with Serena's singular game and gifts, but maybe today's players need to spend less time running sprints and more time with a sports psychologist trying to channel Serena's will to win. Speaking of...
3. Heart is underrated. Serena was down a set and 5-3 to Nadia Petrova. She found a way to win. She was two points from falling to Shahar Peer in the quarterfinals. She found a way to win. Two years ago she staved off match points here to beat Sharapova. Two years prior, she staved off match points to beat Kim Clijsters. Today, she played merciless tennis against the top seed. Serena's technique is imperfect? She practices erratically? She could stand to lose a few pounds? Whatever. Her resolve compensates for an awful lot of deficiencies.
4. Maria Sharapova is a work in progress. While she will inherit the top ranking tomorrow and already has two Majors to her credit, Sharapova was exposed by Serena today. The Russian hits the ball plenty hard but both her serve and movement need work. Nearly half of Serena's 28 winners came on returns; and plenty others came when Sharapova was poorly positioned on the court. With Justine Henin-Hardenne absent and Amelie Mauresmo out early, Sharapova had a big chance to add another prize to her haul. Not only did she fail to do so, but today's thrashing might take residence in her psyche for a long time.
5. Women's tennis will be fine. The critics will complain that Serena's surprising run bespeaks the lack of quality on the WTA Tour. But watching her tee off on serves and pulverize returns (and even play serve-and-volley), it's clear to me the storyline here ought to be about an extraordinary athlete and not about questionable competition. If anything, Serena's return is great for a tour struggling with injury and homogenous games. Her ranking is now No. 14. But after the pasting she just put on the world No. 1, I think you could make the case there's a new sheriff in town -- albeit one wearing lime green from head to toe.