Monday, November 2, 2009

Serena Gets Her Swerve On

So Serena finishes the year with a comfortable 1,275 point lead over No. 2 Dinara Safina and I dare to beg the question - was there every any doubt?

And then I proceed to beg another question: If you watched what Serena did to Dinara in the Australian Open finals (way back then, when the year was young), were you at all in doubt then?

If you were in doubt, and if you were questioning the meaning of all this rankings talk throughout the course of the year, the time is now ripe for putting a lid on it.

One stroke has helped Serena more than any other to put an exclamation point after the Number 1 in today's WTA rankings: The Serve.

Slice it or kick it or hammer it any way you want, but there is not another serve in the women's game even near as lethal as Serena's. You may not love her, you may be afraid of her, and you may not believe her when she tries to apologize to you, but you can rest assured that Serena Williams is the real no. 1 in Woman's tennis.

And would you want it any other way?

I, for one, would not. Serena, as questionable as her etiquette may be at times, has an unquestionably scary serve, whether on Halloween or the 4th of July. And I respect that about her.

It is because of that scary serve that she deserves to finish the year at the top. The fact that she excels at what is so obviously the most difficult stroke in all the game to master assures me that there is more to Serena than meets the eyes. If you find determination scintillating than in Serena you may have found your muse. She isn't simply a glammed-out overpowering fake-similing book promoter (like some detractors might claim). No, there is substance to Serena, and there is game to Serena. 11 Slams and counting pretty much says it all.

You don't get to where Serena currently is without having remarkable fortitude. Great servers are great disciplinarians as well. They have taken the time, through repetition, to remove doubt and sometimes even thought from the equation. When she booms that serve there are decades worth of hard work that are transferring from strings to fuzzy yellow ball. Serena shows no fear when she is serving. She knows no doubt. She's become a memory machine. She's willed herself to be one. She believes she will hit her spot and she's practiced hitting her spot and therefore she does.

Unfortunately she is in the minority at the moment.

If there is one stroke that the whole Tour should attend a seminar on, it is serving. Yes, Venus and Svetlana can bring it when they are on. But both can be prone to double faults and too much inconsistency. From the rest of the top-10 it might be only Wozniacki and Zvonareva that get a C-grade or above. Safina and Dementieva reside in meltdown city and everybody knows it. Jankovic and Radwanska could open a lollipop store and make very very good money. Vika, much to her chagrin, seems more likely to bench press 1,000 kilograms than to serve out a match.

Please don't take this as a diatribe from someone who doesn't have an immense amount of respect for the current state of the women's game. I don't deny that the women's game may be more entertaining than the men's game at the moment. In terms of drama it is second to none. And I don't deny that the women on tour are absolutely TREMENDOUS athletes. The speed, power, and grace from the baseline across the professional ranks is perhaps the best it has ever been.

But what gives with the serving?

In terms of serving acumen it is clear that the women don't embrace the chore the way the men do. Naturally genes and sheer size play a part. And I'll admit that today's returners are far more dangerous than ever. But today's WTA world-beaters are approaching the service line with such trepidation that they have basically muffed the shot before they have tossed the ball. In my opinion the women must realize that whether you are 5'4" or 6'2", attitude in serving is everything.

Just ask Serena. She serves to kill. I'm sure her big sister Venus, who was denied a break point opportunity in their SEC Championship match yesterday, would agree. All week Serena was banging down aces, and not just when she was front-running. Serena used the serve in the way that Marat Safin uses it. She digs herself out of trouble and gets herself into a position to front run with it.

In a user run message board on the Tennis Week website this week, I posed the following question: "Hey all, who do you guys think is the most effective female server of all time?...As far as today's game, it has to be the Williamses - are Venus and Serena the best of all time?"

Though I am no L. Jon Wertheim in terms of popularity, I'm proud to say I got a few responses. Here is the one that most accurately summarizes my point:

"Serena is the best server I've seen in person," said RP. "She has proven herself to be a tremendous situational server - being able to pull out the service winner or ace when she needs it the most," he went on. "That's very, very rare in women's tennis - especially now. And she's the best at it."

That comment was posted on October 27th, just as our favorite linesperson berater was beginning a 5-match rampage through the rest of the elite women's field at Doha that left her as the definitive No. 1.

It was clear before the end of the year and it is now even clearer: When Serena gets her serve on she also gets her swerve on. If I was one of her rivals in the WTA, I'd be asking her for lessons.

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