Healthy Serena just what the doctor ordered
Sure, it might not last. The effort that Serena Williams put forth against Maria Sharapova, the intensity -- good heavens, the raw emotion that Williams tossed out there -- all might seem a distant and exhausted star by the time Williams' championship match in the Australian Open against Lindsay Davenport is done on Friday.
But bear with us for just this long: What if it did last?
What if Williams could repeatedly conjure the kind of focus against the field of the Women's Tennis Association this year that she did in the crucial, 66-minute third set that finally got her past 17-year-old Sharapova in the semifinals at Melbourne? What if she's ready to be exactly that good for a while again?
Can you imagine the effect on the women's game of a healthy and truly engaged Serena Williams? The woman is only 23, after all. You think of her as older because her name and image have spun before you a hundred thousand times already, but in terms of her competitive tennis career, she's no relic.
She missed a chunk of 2004 with a knee injury, and she has acknowledged very publicly the emotional toll her sister Yetunde's shooting death has taken on both her and sister Venus over the past year and a half. But Venus Williams, while still capable of high-level play, has for a couple of years made no secret of the fact that tennis just isn't always the priority for her. It's no surprise for Venus to play well without playing to greatness.
Serena Williams is capable of genuine greatness as a tennis player, and to know it you needed only to see that third set against Sharapova. Williams was daring and steely. She outlasted a good young player who had beaten her twice at key moments in 2004, at the finals of Wimbledon and again at the WTA Championships.
But, mostly, she was Serena -- or at least the Serena Williams who, when on her game, might not yet have an equal in the sport.
Williams had already staved off defeat by Sharapova in the second set, rallying back from 5-4 down to win it 7-5, when the defining third set rolled around. In some ways, Serena had already struck a blow for the memory of her as a more dominant player, shaking off a terrible first set and somehow regaining her focus after misfiring early on stroke after stroke.
But the third was different. It was a gut check. It was at least as much about mental readiness as it was about the mechanics of the strokes or basic physical conditioning.
Sharapova might have been gassed toward the end after having played a tough three-set quarterfinal, but when this thing was up for grabs, she looked exactly like a 17-year-old rising star is supposed to look: Wildly energetic, capable of tremendous stroke-work, and grunting at volume 11. (Future viewer note: When a player begins screaming even before she has made contact between racquet and ball, you may feel free to assume she's doing it almost completely for effect.)
Even with Sharapova on her game, though, Williams was completely present and accounted for. The intensity of her movements was visible. She screamed her own self-approval after a couple of key points. She pumped fists to herself and the crowd.
She scowled a little. She smiled a little. She fired a couple of fierce, lingering glances across the net at Sharapova after a couple of points in which Williams battled her way out of trouble.
And she brought the power, which is just so critical to her game. There is no better way for Serena Williams to play tennis than to come with her strength and dare opponents to figure out a way around it, and the perfect example of that lay in the wicked forehand winners she smacked on her way to staving off three match points in the 10th game of that third set.
At times, Williams' placement of shots was artistic. She wrong-footed Sharapova with several of her forehands, then earned a crucial point in one game with a topspin forehand that, while to Sharapova's forehand side, was delivered with such sizzling force that Sharapova had no chance to even move toward the ball.
Williams screamed her approval after that one -- and that, too, fit the mood of the match. It was an openly emotional time for Williams. She seemed to be rallying herself as well as the Aussie crowd, which got behind her during the Sharapova match and stayed there.
It was the most expressive Serena has appeared in quite a while. And it was the most welcome sight in the world.
The women's game has some things going for it right now, including the influx of quality Russian players and the truly nice story of Davenport, who is back in a Grand Slam final only months after actively contemplating retirement from the tour. But a fully engaged and focused Serena Williams, that's something else again.
That would be something worth watching, and continuously so. Because that would mark the resurgence of a player who has a chance for greatness -- if only she decides that greatness in tennis is something she still wants to aspire to.
Mark Kreidler is a columnist for the Sacramento Bee and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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