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Wednesday, April 2, 2008
Serena: In a class of her own

For years, Serena Williams's apologists have argued that little sis is the best player in the world. Forget what the rankings say. Never mind that she's a part-time player with one foot on the court and another in Hollywood. Pay no attention to whether she appears to be in shape. It doesn't matter. When Serena Williams decides to concentrate on tennis, so the apologists tell us, she will beat anyone, anywhere, anytime.

For years, I've never been able to bring myself to support this argument. If Williams is not No. 1, for whatever reason, she's not the best player in the world.

Well, forget it. After watching Williams destroy Justine Henin in the quarterfinals of Miami this week, I now count myself as one of the converted, a card-carrying member of the Serena Williams appreciation club. How many times do I have to watch Williams pull a disappearing act (in February, she vanished for emergency dental surgery) only to return to the court and thrash the top players before I believe that she is, indeed, the best player in tennis when she puts her mind to it?

There has never been a player who can so easily come and go as he or she pleases. Not Bjorn Borg. Not John McEnroe. Not Martina Navratilova. Not Chris Evert. Serena is in a class all her own. She's kind of like the game's version of the actor Daniel Day-Lewis. That guy breaks all the conventions -- he spends most of his time doing woodwork rather than incessantly honing his acting chops, and then eventually comes out of hiding to put on a virtuoso display.

Could Serena Williams clean up if she focused on tennis 24/7? I'm not betting against her.

But what does that say about the state of the women's game that a part-time player can thrash someone like Henin, who, the computer tells us, is the No. 1 player in the world? On some level it might bespeak a lack of depth on the WTA Tour. But proficiency with strokes and strategy isn't where Serena Williams holds the formidable edge. It's her attitude.

Serena Williams is fearless. She goes for all of her shots, from serves to swinging volleys, with the intention of putting the ball away or blasting right through her opponent. This isn't to say that Williams is immune to choking, but that she is the rarest of players who has an uncanny and unwavering belief in her ability to execute every time she steps on to the court. It doesn't matter how fit she is or how many matches she's played. Serena never loses the plot.

Williams' father, Richard, deserves credit for giving his daughter this borderline bizarre self-confidence. It can make Serena sound beyond arrogant at times, and positively strange at others. It also makes her the era's defining champion.

What about Williams' competition? Henin can be fragile. You get the sense that Ana Ivanovic still doesn't completely believe that she belongs on the biggest stages. Jelena Jankovic? Please. Nicole Vaidisova, once thought to be a future No. 1, is a mental midget. Svetlana Kuznetsova? She's lost eight of her last nine finals. Maria Sharapova is the only player who comes close to matching Serena Williams' fearlessness.

When Williams deigns to show up, she is the best player in tennis. And most, if not all, of the players are intimidated by her. Can you blame them?