Monday, September 10, 2012

Serena leagues above the competition

Serena Williams won her 4th US Open and the 15th grand slam of her career at Flushing Meadows in an error-strewn yet thrilling women's final of the 2012 US Open. It was a fitting conclusion to a summer of unparalleled dominance by Serena.

After her shock first round defeat at Roland Garros, Serena has simply been relentless in her quest for glory. A tricky first week at Wimbledon notwithstanding, she has played at a level rarely seen in the history of women's tennis, outhitting and outsmarting the toughest of opponents including players ranked higher than her and fellow grand slam winners.

Serena won Wimbledon serving more aces than any other player in the tournament, including the entire men's field. Unbelievably, she backed up her performance at Wimbledon by playing even better grass court tennis at the Olympics, thrashing Victoria Azarenka 6-1 6-2 in the semis, and then simply obliterating Maria Sharapova 6-0 6-1 to win the gold medal.

At Flushing Meadows Serena continued her remarkable streak. With opponents simply clueless against her serve, and Serena herself absolutely pounding returns, she steamrollered her way into the final. After winning the first set of the final 6-2, a routine victory against Azarenka seemed a formality.

To the Belorussian's credit, Azarenka put in a concerted effort and refused to wilt away. Proving why she won the Australian Open and became the reigning world no.1, Azarenka had Serena rattled. After winning the second set convincingly 6-2, she twice broke Serena in the deciding set and was serving for the championship at 5-4. Unfortunately her composure deserted her at the vital moment, and a succession of unforced errors enabled Serena to claw her way back and ultimately win the match.

Despite the loss, Azarenka seems to be the closest to being a realistic challenger to Serena's dominance. A lot depends on her ability to recover from this devastating loss. Azarenka can take a lot of pride in the way she fought against Serena in the final, as many lesser opponents would simply have rolled over after the hammering she received in the first set. Her performance was another illustration of her grit and determination following on from tough three set victories over Samantha Stosur and Maria Sharapova in the quarter-finals and semi-finals respectively.

For Azarenka to improve and take her game to a level at which she can consistently challenge for grand slams, she has to work on her first serve. If she can add a few clicks to her first serve, it will substantially reduce the pressure on her to go for outright winners from the baseline. Her baseline game is probably the best after Serena, although she could work on generating more power when she hits cross-court off both wings to ally her tremendous ability to hit winners down the line at will.

Maria Sharapova has had her best year in grand slams in ages. Completing the career grand slam by winning the French Open was a phenomenal achievement for Sharapova, and rest assured she can now put the injury-strewn years of 2010 and 2011 behind her. Remarkably, Sharapova's game now seems best suited to clay. However, her serve is a major weakness against the best opponents. Its extremely doubtful if Sharapova's serve will ever have the same potency that it had in her pre-2009 heyday. Nonetheless Sharapova did demonstrate a desire to win and fight hard throughout the year, a trait that establishes her as the second biggest challenger to Serena after Azarenka.

2012 saw three breakout stars in women's tennis. Agnieszka Radwanksa made a long-awaited grand slam breakthrough by reaching the Wimbledon final. However, she did have a rather alarming slide post-Wimbledon, and one hopes that this talented artistic player is just going through a small blip in form.

Angelique Kerber played some of the best tennis this summer, but unfortunately was the victim of an extremely tough draw at Flushing Meadows. The southpaw can generate power of both wings with minimum effort, and if she can somehow overcome her ability to implode in tight situations, Kerber can be a dark horse to crack the top 5 in 2013.

The Italian Sara Errani truly had a year to remember. Winning the French Open and US Open doubles with her friend Roberta Vinci, Errani forged her reputation in singles by reaching the final at Roland Garros and then the semis at the US Open. Errani has a feel-good vibe about her, and her uncomplicated approach to the game has paid dividends this year. Whether she can maintain this form in 2013 will depend on her adding some aggression to her game, though her variety and silent movement across the court have caught many big-hitters cold many times this year.

Ultimately, despite the presence of many pretenders to the crown, the biggest competition that Serena Williams faces is from herself. When she is focused and on song, Serena is simply unbeatable. Remarkably her game is getting better after the age of 30, and the possibility of holding all four grand slams at the same time will be a big motivation for her in 2013. Her biggest challenge in that regard, will be to improve her game on clay, and win the French Open a second time. Outside of Paris however, on hard courts and grass, Serena Williams is set to continue her dominance from 2012 into 2013.