Saturday, January 28, 2017

Serena beats Venus to win her 23rd major singles title

She's a rocker, she takes after me
And she's a roller, runs in the family
She's a rock and roll baby, a real gone twister
But...Don't you mess around with my little sister
Michelle Shocked

One of the best sports stories of recent times was told yesterday in Rod Laver Arena in Melbourne, when Venus and Serena Williams, ages 36 and 35 respectively, faced off in the Australian Open final. It was the first time since 2009 that the pair had met in a major final, and it's doubtful that very many fans and tennis observers anticipated that they would ever meet this way again.

It had already been a dramatic two weeks, what with Venus's return to the "last women standing" part of a big-stage draw, the giant-killing accomplishments of unseeded CoCo Vandeweghe, and the heart-wrenching semi-final run of Mirjana Lucic-Baroni. One could easily become exhausted without even lifting a racket--and for those of us who live in  my part of the world, exhaustion from lack of sleep is a given, anyway, during the season's first major.

The story was almost perfect, it's only flaw being that it was too short. Serena got off to a shaky start. She was obviously on edge, and sometimes--when she's on edge like that--she doesn't fully recover. Other times, she snaps herself back into place and does what Serena does. This was one of those "other times." 

The first set was close, with the opponents breaking each other five times. Serena won that set 6-4, and her record in major finals came to mind, as it always does: If she wins the first set, she winds up with the trophy. This match confirmed that remarkable statistic. Despite Venus significantly improving her first serve and even cutting down on errors in the second set--making it look, for a while, like the match would go the distance--she was unable to break Serena. At 3-all, Serena converted a third break point, and it turned out that that was all she needed to do. That set, also, went to Serena, 6-4. 

The match lasted an hour and 21 minutes, and featured some delicious rallies from two of the tour's greatest hitters. These two love to pull each other side to side, and force each other to come up with almost-impossible to execute shots. That happened several times during the match, as the two veterans put on the same show of athleticism and guile that they have for many, many years.

It was understandably hard to cheer for (or against) either of them. Had Venus won, she would have earned her eighth major title in a career that was rudely interrupted for a long time by the arrival of Sjogren's syndrome, which a bevy of doctors were too ignorant to diagnose (her symptoms were textbook), and then by Venus's learning appropriate management of the disease and playing her way back into the elite section of the tour. Venus won her last major title in 2008, when she picked up her fifth Venus Rosewater dish at Wimbldon.

For Serena, the win brings her major singles total to 23, which is one beyond the Open Era record set by Steffi Graf, and one behind the mixed era record set by Margaret Court. This is what fans, the media and the players focus on, but I mention it only in passing. Counting majors is really not relevant because so much has changed since professional tennis began, and since the Open Era began. 

Players often skipped the Australian Open because it was held during the holidays. Chris Evert, who pretty much owned the French Open, skipped it three times to play World Team Tennis. (And consider Rod Laver, who wasn't allowed to play in tournaments he likely would have won.) Also, counting major titles wasn't a "thing" until fairly recently. So, in a nod to the much missed Petra Kvitova, I'll say that "going by the numbers" is like comparing tennis balls with asparagus.

Having said that, I'll add that winning 23 majors--regardless of any other considerations--is indeed a a stunning reflection of how dominant Serena Williams has been for a very long time. When we consider that she and Venus first played each other at the Australian Open 19 years ago, we are able to glimpse the broad landscape of the effect that both sisters have had on the sport of tennis, and on sport in general.

It would have been quite enough for Serena and Venus to be the amazing and long-lasting force in tennis that they are. But they are so much more. They are, individually and together, a testament to belief, endurance and--perhaps most of all--survival. And to top it off, they are both entertaining, endearing and committed to causes that are more important than tennis.

"Your win has always been my win," Venus said to her sister in her beautiful runner-up acceptance. speech. And that's the way it will always be (and vice versa). 

With this victory, Serena has taken back her number 1 ranking, and woe to anyone who suggests that her time of greatness is over. She. Is. Serena. Williams. And Venus, another great champion, can certainly confirm for the rest of the tour: "Don't you mess around with my little sister."


Todd.Spiker said...

Oddly enough, of all the memorable images from after the match, I think some of the greatest involved all the reactions of the little girl who took part in the trophy ceremony along with Mandlikova. She looked like she was having the time of her life, and that she'll remember every single moment for the rest of her life.

Diane said...

I'm sure she will--what an honor! They were all so cute together. And I was so happy to see Hana :)

Todd.Spiker said...

And, of course, Mandlikova (who later obtained Australian citizenship) was the last AO singles champion in '87 before the tournament switched from grass to hard court the next year. Everyone tends to forget (or never learned in the first place) about the changing surface history of the AO, as well as the U.S. Open.

Diane said...

Right you are. The only reason we still have a big grass court tournament is because the AELTC is horrified by the thought of changing anything. I'm glad we have one, though.