AUSTRALIAN OPEN

Rohit at the Australian Open: Williams serves notice of intent

Serena Williams leaps for joy after defeating Maria Sharapova in straight sets yesterday to claim her sixth Australian Open crown. The victory took her tally of Grand Slam titles to 19, one more than Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert.
Serena Williams leaps for joy after defeating Maria Sharapova in straight sets yesterday to claim her sixth Australian Open crown. The victory took her tally of Grand Slam titles to 19, one more than Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert.PHOTO: EPA

Champion raises the bar for women's tennis as she eyes Graf's tally of 22 slams

To say Serena Williams plays tennis well is akin to saying Picasso was handy with a brush. By turning competitiveness into an art form, she has altered history, redefined greatness and defied us to judge her. The best? Ever? In tennis? One day, in women's sport itself? Only the astonishing can make us consider such impertinent questions.

Rain trickled down outside yesterday and Williams reigned inside as neither harmful microbe nor a hustling Maria Sharapova could deny her a sixth Australian Open title. She won 6-3, 7-6.

She said her health was iffy and her play was partly "passive", but said: "It feels pretty good to be sitting here as champion". Later, Martina Navratilova handed her a real trophy even as she was symbolically handing over her place in the Grand Slam winners' list.

Navaratilova, with Chris Evert, has 18 singles slams, but Serena is done with mortals and is presently holding hands with a ghost. She is equal with the late Helen Wills Moody on 19 and old Little Miss Poker Face of the 1920s-30s may have been enthralled by her.

Moody hit with male players, so does Williams. Moody, said the legendary Don Budge to the New York Times once, "hit the ball harder than most, except maybe Steffi Graf". Rewrite that phrase: for Graf, now write Serena.

No, wait, rewrite almost everything. Let's end arguments on the greatest server ever. Yesterday 18 aces. Let's reconfigure the idea of domination for her sort of beautiful brutality, to an entire tour, we can't remember. Just examine her head-to-head with former No.1s. Just take a minute. Just gawp.

Kim Clijsters 7-2. Justine Henin 8-6. Amelie Mauresmo 10-2. Lindsay Davenport 10-4. Ana Ivanovic 8-1. Jelena Jankovic 10-4. Dinara Safin 6-1. Caroline Wozniacki 10-1. Victoria Azarenka 14-3. Venus Williams 14-11. Martina Hingis 7-6. Jennifer Capriati 10-7. And now she is 17-2 versus Sharapova.

The match started with Sharapova losing serve and ended with a Williams ace. From the first ball, the American was hitting the skin off the ball and the set disappeared in 47 minutes. The only early drama was a rain break, from which Serena returned coughing and spat out an ace.

The second set saved the match, rescued a damp women's tournament and halted flippant asides on a one-sided rivalry. This was not a match handed over by Sharapova but wrested from her. As she said: "It's frustrating to be the one going home with the small trophy. But I do love the battle. I do love the high-quality tennis."

The allure of both women is that they require no encouragement from their players' box. They may not be toe-nail polishing pals, but they are self-confident members of the sisterhood of the clenched fist. If they ever had lunch together, the only dish would be intensity.

C'mon, one screamed. C'mon, echoed the other. It was a match played at full tilt and in full voice. Eagerness was never an issue. On one point Serena shouted "come on" before her serve even reached the other side and was docked a point for hindrance. Another time she applauded a Sharapova furious forehand at match point.

No serve broke in the second set and no nerve shredded. In the second game, Sharapova went down 15-40 and fired two aces; at 2-2, Serena was 0-30 and launched three of her own. Both gave everything, but the everything of Serena is simply greater.

Next on the Grand Slam list is Graf with 22 and Serena is eyeing it cautiously: "I would love to get to 22. Nineteen was very difficult, it took me 33 years to get here. But I have to get to 20 first. There are so many wonderful young players and it will be a very big task."

She showed no emotion till the grown-up handshake was done and then bounded like a girl. Later, reflecting on where she had come as a player, she spoke of how it began. With a ball, a racquet, and hope. It's all it takes, she said, and it's all she needs.

rohitb@sph.com.sg