Serena's personalities, legendary game produce French renaissance
PARIS -- In one of her more revealing moments this tournament, Serena Williams addressed the various personalities that reside deep within her. Since she first infiltrated the Tennisphere in the late 1990s, Serena has been a bundle of contradictions and unpredictability. We call her by her first name, yet she remains mysterious in some ways. Now, 15 years into an astonishing career -- filled with all sorts of plot twists and relentless, almost devotional, winning -- we have some insight into the driving forces.
There's Summer. "My assistant who lives inside my body," Serena said. "She's really organized and she's amazing. I love her."
Then there's Megan. "I think she was a bad girl. ... Haven't seen her in a long time."
And there's Laquanda. "She's not allowed to come out. She's on probation. She's not nasty. She just keeps it real. And you don't want to cross her."
The same facets that continue to make Serena a singularly compelling personality also inform her tennis. The casual fans will see she won still another major singles title Saturday afternoon in Paris -- we're up to 16, for those scoring at home -- beating a game Maria Sharapova 6-4, 6-4 in the French Open final. They will assume Serena did what she often does and brought her insurmountable power to bear, turning a tennis match into a physical altercation, playing with peerless intensity.
And they would be right. But they would be missing the multiple personalities of her tennis game. Yes, there is Power. Let's get her out of the way right now. Power has been there from the start. Power expresses herself when Serena is sending tracer fire across the net. Thanks mostly to Power, it took five matches before Serena dropped her serve here. As always, she led the field in aces. (It was Sharapova who pointed out Serena serves harder than men's finalist, David Ferrer.) In her 6-0, 6-1 semifinal win over 2012 runner-up Sara Errani, two out of every three points played ended with Serena smiting a winner, the kind of ratio most players achieve when they hit against a ball machine.
There is Defense. Time and again Saturday, Serena stretched wide or scrambled to a corner to retrieve one of Sharapova's offerings. That was Defense. And this didn't just prolong the points. It had the effect of forcing Sharapova to give herself the smallest margins of error.
"I took risks," said Sharapova, "because I had to." She had to because Serena ran down so many shots.
Then there is Serena's recent handmaiden, Poise. It's Poise that enabled Serena to play with fierce determination and, simultaneously, a sense of detachment. It was, of course, a year ago that Serena lost, shockingly, in the first round to little Virginie Razzano. In a match that was bizarre by any measure, Serena openly cried during changeovers. (Poise was away that day. Visa trouble, we hear.) Other players gathered around the locker room room TV, watching giddily; some then openly asserted Serena's reign was over.
Six weeks later, Poise returned and Serena had won Wimbledon. A few weeks after that, she won an Olympic gold medal. A few later, a U.S. Open title. Since that match in Paris where Poise was clearly not in evidence? Serena's record is 73-3. With no real meltdowns.
"I don't know how to say it, it all comes together now," Sascha Bajin, her hitting partner, said after the match. "She has a different confidence now. There just haven't been as many ups and downs as she's been known for. ... We've come a long way since [last year]."
This tournament, Poise kept a low profile. She wasn't needed when Serena was cruising through her first four matches. But Poise surfaced in the quarterfinals. Against 2009 champion Svetlana Kuznetsova, Serena dropped the second set and was a point from an 0-3 deficit in the third. This had echoes of last year's loss.
"I'm still a little bit upset about that loss last year, but it's all about how you recover," she said. "I've always said a champion isn't about how much they win, but it's about how they recover from their downs, whether it's an injury or whether it's a loss."
No problem. She summoned Poise, reeled off six of the next seven games and advanced.
Saturday, too, Poise made a series of cameos. Girded for battle and intent on reversing a 12-match losing streak spanning the better part of a decade, Sharapova won the first two games and was a point from winning the third.
"She played probably the best she's played me," Serena said. "She really wanted it."
No problem. Serena conjured Poise and decided not to miss. At 4-4 in the first set, Poise arrived again. Serena dialed in her returns, broke Sharapova and then served out the set. At 5-4 in the second set, a game from a title that has eluded her for more than a decade, Poise enabled Serena to serve three aces, including one on the final point.
Finally there is Strategy. Not only do few people know about the existence of Strategy; some maintain Strategy is anathema to Serena. Hell, she just pounds the ball. And LeBron James just dunks. Strategy is what enables Serena to head to the net, which she did a dozens times this afternoon, usually to devastating effect. It's what enables her to guess right on most of Sharapova's serves. It's what enables her to adjust her game for clay. Those 70 winners Serena unloaded in the last four sets she played? Yes, many of them were missiles. But note, too, how many of them were clever, curling angled shots -- perfect for the surface -- that took their first bounce inside the service line and their second bounce somewhere near the courtside geraniums.
Strategy also express herself as Big Picture. When Serena was starting off her career, she made a conscious decision to ration her energy and play a pared down schedule. She would show up to the majors and the big-ticket events. But she wasn't going to burn herself out, pinballing from Philadelphia to Filderstadt. The results of this gambit Strategy brought to bear? From Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters to Elena Dementieva, a raft of Serena's contemporaries have long since left the show. On Friday, Serena practiced alongside one of her former rivals, Martina Hingis. The difference is Hingis has retired twice and hasn't played a WTA match in six years. She was prepping for a hit-and-giggle match in the Legends tour. Serena was prepping for her 16th major title.
When she won said title, she fell to the ground, as if breading herself in the Roland Garros clay that hadn't treated her well for so many years. Then she recovered -- Poise again! Or maybe that was Strategy? -- to address the adoring crowd in French. At age 31 -- with help from all those tennis personalities finally working together in consonance -- she's playing as well as ever. In two weeks she heads to Wimbledon, where she'll again be the favorite.
Why even think about retirement. She's already on the Legends circuit.