Serena surprised, elated after win
KEY BISCYAYNE, Fla. -- She's not the same Serena Williams. Her focus wanders a bit. She's a little slower, and her court sense is off. Her serve isn't quite as strong. Even so, it didn't stop her from being the only woman besides Monica Seles to win her first tournament back after at least six months out.
|Fernandez: Work still to be done|
Regardless of the fact that she didn't have to play three top-10 players to reach the final, just to win matches after you've been out eight months is amazing.
She fought her way through here. She looked a little tired after her semifinal match, but after a day of rest, she looked fine in Saturday's final.
She's still got a little way to go with her game. Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin-Hardenne get a lot of balls back. So we'll see next week in Amelia Island, Fla., how it goes.
-- Mary Joe Fernandez
"I never expected to come back and just win a huge tournament like this," said Serena, who earned her third consecutive title here.
In the final, Elena Dementieva was no match for Serena, who was once again wearing her "Wonder Woman" outfit with a tank top and Daisy Dukes shorts. In the first set, Serena reeled off 11 consecutive points. She won the first set 6-1 in 24 minutes. Twenty-six minutes later, allowing one more game -- a break -- to get away, Serena won the title 6-1, 6-1 in the most lopsided final in the tournament's 20-year history.
"It's just amazing how well she played after this break," said Dementieva, who defeated Venus Williams 6-3, 5-7, 7-6 (3) in the quarterfinals.
Although Serena actually had more unforced errors (14) than winners (12), Serena ate Dementieva's second serve, winning 18 of 19 times. Dementieva, who said she developed a slice serve to compensate for a shoulder injury and the bad habit stuck, never won a game off of her serve.
"That's good that she beat me so easily," Dementieva said. "Now I'm gonna work better, you know. I'm gonna improve my game. You know, I realize if I want to win a tournament, even a Grand Slam, I have to be stronger."
She's not the only one. The women's field started off the year depleted by injuries, and this tournament was no exception even with the return of both Williams sisters. No. 1 Justine Henin-Hardenne chose to skip what is considered to be the fifth-largest tournament after the Grand Slams to start working on her clay game. Henin-Hardenne will be attempting to defend her French Open title on the surface in late May.
It's pretty sparse after that as you go down the rankings list. Out due to injury: Kim Clijsters and Amelie Mauresmo. Lindsay Davenport, like Henin-Hardenne, skipped the tourney. Anastasia Myskina -- injured. Serena, ranked seventh, is next. Following her is Jennifer Capriati, who hasn't managed to win a tournament without a default in the final since the 2002 Australian Open. Venus Williams' ranking slipped to No. 17 before she came here, although she was seeded higher as compensation for her injury affecting the rank.
Based in part on Venus' struggles since returning from her own injury, no one really expected Serena to win this tournament despite the weak field.
"Two weeks ago, I was really nervous to come out here and play for the first time in eight months," Serena said. "I'm just thinking, 'Gosh, I'm really nervous. I want to get out.'"
Although she didn't face a top-10 player until the final, she still battled the elements. Rain played havoc with the schedule and backed matches up. When they could take the court, players fought swirling, high-speed winds.
"I played four out of five days," Serena said. "That was pretty demanding on my body. But I was really excited to know I could play like that and still be physically OK."
In the end, it's winning that matters when you're trying to build confidence. Serena said this week that she didn't want to come back until she knew she was ready. Until she knew she could win again.
Now, she knows and so does the rest of the WTA Tour.
"I think it just says that I'm back," Serena said. "And as long as I'm healthy, then I'm definitely still a top competitor."
She did hold out hope for the other women by saying that heart means more than being athletic.
"If you have 90 percent desire and 10 percent talent, I think you're going to do better than the person that has 90 percent talent or athleticism and 10 percent desire," Serena said. "I think it's all about the heart and what you can produce.
"I think that's why tennis is so different because if you have enough desire and heart to do well, then you can be a champ."
That's something the six-time Grand Slam winner knows something about. With plans on continuing to work and improve every aspect of the game, she heads to Ameila Island, Fla., next week -- a tournament that Henin-Hardenne isn't planning on skipping. Serena said it doesn't matter who she plays because she'll have to face everyone eventually.
For now, she can savor this moment. She's held court on this island for almost 12 days, at times keeping everyone waiting to see or hear from her. She was Serena: Warrior Princess and star of the Empress' New Clothes. We've heard about her acting, her fashion design, her obsession with reality shows, her love of exchanging Olympic pins and oh, yes, her tennis. Sometimes thoughtful, sometimes playful, once scolding, but always fascinating.
For example, when addressing her athleticism, Serena gave a surprising answer for a former No. 1 player in the world.
"Outside of tennis, I'm terrible at sports -- except for running. I can run pretty fast," she said, smiling. "Other than that, I'm not coordinated. I just am not good at it."
Say what you will about the beauty of Henin-Hardenne's game, tennis was not nearly as much fun without the Williams sisters.
Cynthia Faulkner is the tennis editor for ESPN.com.
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