By Tumaini Carayol
(May 11, 2013) When Serena Williams opened with an effortless forehand winner before a statement opening service hold, one could be forgiven for assuming this was an indication that she intended to put right what had gone so terribly wrong in the previous match. That all the factors that contributed to her being on the receiving end of a bagel and a 2-4 third set deficit to Anabel Medina Garrigues were to be eradicated from living memory with a performance worthy of the world No. 1.
One was wrong.
The following games would showcase the younger Williams’ game in a rapid descent back to the pits of hell as she impatiently expected the match to fall into place without an ounce of effort. Rather than working with the clay, the world No. 1 essentially attempted to play against the basic nature of the surface, taking large and unnecessary cuts at the ball and directing the majority of shots with no margin, width or imagination. For a seasoned claycourter like Sara Errani, it was all too easy. When Williams wasn’t committing a myriad of errors, missing laughable smashes and generally gifting the majority of points to her opponent, Errani had no problem with exploiting Williams’ painfully linear play, simply redirecting her shots crosscourt and exploiting her sketchy movement on the red dirt.
One of the more maddening aspects of Serena on clay is that she is more than capable of embracing the surface and using it to compliment some of her own strengths. When discussing her sole Roland Garros triumph in 2002, people often tell of a player who was so supremely greater than the other thousands of professional female players that surface was irrelevant. While this is true, it ignores the fact that her final in Berlin and triumphs in Rome and Roland Garros that year were not the product of her playing some ballistic and otherworldly attacking tennis on clay. She prospered by obeying the surface’s core rules. She moved better than her opposition on clay, constructed points with angles and width, and understood that, to be a consistent success, it was often necessary to outmaneuver opponents rather than outhit them. Sure, there was power – lots of it – but it was tempered and she attacked with discretion. The result was that her clay court duels with Jennifer Capriati were some of the most physical ever seen. Eleven years later, though aspects of her game have notably deteriorated – her movement on clay, for example – many of those qualities remain hidden under the surface of her game, waiting to be utilized once again.
As the bleeding began again and the world number one found herself down 1-3, similar thoughts appeared to well up in the mind of Serena. From the large and unnecessary swipes at the ball came a sense of calmness as Williams finally began to think and endeavored to collaborate with the conditions rather than play against them. Out of nowhere, she began to almost exclusively attack cross-court, alternating between hitting with great depth and using the width of the court. Though errors still littered her game and left the first set in the balance, the results were immediate. She was able to gradually drag the defending French Open finalist off the court and defeated her through combinations of shots rather than single booming blows. Fittingly, after three missed set points, the 7-5 set was closed out with a perfectly-measured acute angled forehand.
It wasn’t until that first set was safely tucked away that the shackles were unleashed and Williams was truly able to play. The riskier tennis returned, but the world number one was able to strike a comfortable balance between constructing points and attacking as Errani simply played into Williams’ hands. In contrast to the hour-long first set in which 36 of Errani’s points came courtesy of Williams’ 28 unforced errors, the second set was a far more routine affair as Williams cruised to victory.
Though far from Williams’ most impressive victory, it showcased Serena at her thoughtful best – a vital quality that will aid her in her pursuit of the improbable-yet-possible feat that is her replicating her grand clay triumph of 11 years ago.
But, for now, both of her eyes will be on Maria Sharapova as the world No. 1 and French Open champion battle for the Madrid title and top spot on Sunday.
Tumaini Carayol is in Madrid covering the Madrid Open for Tennis Panorama News. He is a contributing writer at On The Baseline, and writes about professional tennis at his site Foot Fault. Follow his tournament updates on @TennisNewsTPN and his personal twitter @TumCarayol.