Serena Williams may be the best women’s tennis player in history, and she’s improving before our very eyes.
Her straight-sets victory over Maria Sharapova for her second title in the French Open (she last won in 2002) signals a renewed commitment for Williams. Her game has grown more nuanced and balanced, and she ran through the field while dropping only one set, to Svetlana Kuznetsova in the quarterfinals.
What was most impressive about Williams was the sheer variety of shots in her arsenal. For years, she won with powerful serving and fearsome ball striking off both sides. It was brutally effective, the tennis equivalent of shock and awe. But her game could implode on the occasional bad day. A year ago at Roland Garros, Williams lost in the first round to Virginie Razzano, beating herself with countless unforced errors. She looked miserable on the red clay, at war with both herself and the humbling surface.
But against Sharapova, a player who looks to take control of the point from the first strike, Williams showed her much improved ground game. Rather than go for a winner on the first or second ball, she used spin and height and change of direction to outmaneuver her taller, less agile opponent.
Williams’s magisterial serve was still dominant, and she was not afraid to go toe to toe and slug it out with Sharapova, but what struck me was her willingness to slide and defend, to run wide and play a looping topspin shot to restart the point. She was playing a much more complete game than she did a year ago. Yes, she still ripped winners off both sides, but she also used touch like a seasoned clay courter.
On one point early in the second set, Williams played a feathery forehand drop shot up the line, then closed with perfect timing as Sharapova slid into a backhand chip up the line. Williams anticipated beautifully, then played a lob volley over Sharapova’s head. The knowledgeable French crowd murmured appreciatively at the softly devastating shot.