A focused Serena is one special player

1/31/2009 - Tennis

MELBOURNE, Australia -- An infernal heat wave broke here Saturday, enabling Serena Williams to contest the Australian Open championship with the roof open at Rod Laver Arena for the first time in her four appearances in the final. Unfortunately for her opponent, that only made it more obvious that a nighttime match was ending with plenty of daylight left in the sky.

It's also evident that Williams' sun is approaching its zenith again. Her 10th Grand Slam victory, a bloodless 59-minute, 6-0, 6-3 evisceration of Russia's Dinara Safina, also marks the first time since the Serena Slam era of 2002-03 that she has won back-to-back majors. Williams also ascended to No. 1 again, a position she held briefly last year for the first time since her halcyon days, and won the doubles title with sister Venus for a Serena Sweep.

"I wanted to get to 10," Serena said of her milestone, an accomplishment she shares with only four other women in the 41 years of the Open era. "You never know what happens in life. I feel like, you know, opportunities sometimes don't present themselves twice."

Williams dominated every facet of the match. But her real secret in being able to win this often-fickle Slam so often -- hopscotching to the title every other year since 2003 -- is that she shows up mentally ready to compete even if she isn't always executing perfectly.

"That's why Andre [Agassi] was so successful here," said ESPN analyst Chris Fowler. "People have accused Serena of not being focused. Four Australian Opens is a pretty good refutation of that. It suits some players. Is anyone else better prepared to play championship-level tennis at this point in the season?"

Safina shanked three double faults in her first service game to give Williams the early break, which is the equivalent of letting Secretariat start four furlongs ahead of the field in the Belmont. Williams is the ultimate front-runner here. She's now 35-0 in this tournament when she wins the first set. The last time she was defeated with a 1-0 set lead in Grand Slam play of any kind was in the 2004 U.S. Open.

But it wasn't all about what Safina did wrong, even though she apologized to the crowd afterward, her breath ragged and her eyes red-rimmed. Williams walked up to the service line time after time like a seasoned trial lawyer about to begin closing arguments, composed, self-assured and without need to refer to notes. On Safina's second serves, she stepped inside the baseline and pounced mercilessly.

"Normally my serve is my weapon," Safina said. "So playing without all my weapons, it's tough against her … I wouldn't say that I was negative on the court, nothing. I was trying to stay positive and I was trying to do something. Just didn't have enough time to do it. It was too fast."

Williams won a staggering 95 percent of her first serve points and made only seven unforced errors to Safina's 21. The impact of her racket on forehand winners made it sound as if she were hitting a medicine ball.

Safina did manage to break Williams in the first game of the second set, but Williams returned the favor and then held at love, swatting a forehand cross-court winner from a full crouch on game point. A few points later, the crowd, silent for long stretches as if embarrassed for Safina, cheered a Williams error; Safina wheeled around with an irritated expression, clearly not interested in being the object of pity.

During the postmatch ceremony, Safina watched longingly as Williams casually stuffed her prize check into the trophy and closed the lid. The WTA's new No. 2 will have to steady her nerves, her ball toss and her self-belief in order to have a chance at that cookie jar.

"It was out of her hands," said ESPN analyst and two-time Australian Open finalist Mary Joe Fernandez. "Serena at her best is better than anyone else. The only thing Safina could have done was serve better."

As Fernandez noted, several of the top women in the game seem to be engaged in intermittent war with their own serves as much as they're fighting their rivals, and that bodes poorly for the distaff division of the game. The past three women's finals in Melbourne have been one-sided affairs won at the service line by the woman who seized the day and the advantage simply by putting the key in the ignition.

Safina has been thrashed in both of her first two Grand Slam finals, and like Ana Ivanovic before her, it raises the question of when she's going to be ready for her close-up. The Russian said she slept fine the night before and attributed her nerves to the fact that she was playing not only for a title but for the honor of being No. 1.

In contrast, Williams is far more interested in winning majors than maintaining the top ranking. If it comes, it comes, but as has been her approach for the past few years, she won't gear her schedule around trying to stay there.

But commentator Jim Courier said it's long past time to question the way the Williamses construct their schedule.

"She and her sister are very special athletes and special people," he said. "All these years we criticized them for not being committed to playing week in and week out, but maybe in hindsight we should thank them, because they're still around."

Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at bonniedford@aol.com.