Thursday, July 5, 2012

Global 2012: Serena, the champ, is back

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - JANUARY 27:  Serena Wil...MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - JANUARY 27: Serena Williams of the United States of America plays a forehand in her quarterfinal match against Victoria Azarenka of Belarus during day ten of the 2010 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 27, 2010 in Melbourne, Australia. (Image credit: Getty Images via @daylife)
With the outdoor courts shut down, the last two Wimbledon women's champions met on Centre Court, the only match going, the only thing to see as the rain fell Tuesday. It was expected to be a titanic matchup of power versus power, the old guard versus the new, but Serena Williams, the 2010 champion, put a steady 6-3, 7-5 beatdown on last year's champion, Petra Kvitova.

It was very important tennis, but neither played the beautiful game, replete with long rallies, huge points and style. Kvitova solved her problems with power, as did Williams. When facing a challenge, as Kvitova would periodically devour a second serve with a huge winner, Williams responded with more power: serves of 115 mph and sizzling backhands. Anyone looking for lobs, drops and slices needed to go to Court 1 and look up Agnieszka Radwanska.

Williams' win was a reminder that she is the only true showstopper in the women's game. She's the one player who must be dealt with. The one whose presence affects the entire tournament. Williams hasn't won a major since Wimbledon 2010, but injury more than the field defeated her. When she is right, she is still the most dangerous performer in the game and the only woman who can control the entire game with her serve.

"I think it was a great match from both of us," Kvitova said afterward, "and I think she just served better than me."

Williams will face Victoria Azarenka, who advanced with a 6-3, 7-6 (4) win over Tamira Paszek, in the semifinals. The matchup will be another queen versus heir apparent, as Azarenka desperately craves the cachet of Williams and the true greats of the game. Azarenka won her only major this year in Australia as part of a 26-match win streak that solidified her No. 1 ranking. The streak ended in Miami, and Azarenka has not been the same player since. She lost at the French Open to Dominika Cibulkova and the top ranking to eventual champion Maria Sharapova.

This tournament, Azarenka has played with a special fire. In a 6-1, 6-0 destruction of Ana Ivanovic, it was clear that Azarenka is playing to regain her place at the top. Fittingly, the only true dominant figure in her sport, Williams, stands in the way. Serena has beaten Azarenka seven of eight times, including once on grass, in the 2009 Wimbledon quarterfinals. Part of Williams' competitive genius is in spotting threats, threats to her titles, her rankings, her goals. First Kvitova and now Azarenka.

"You can't play a defending Wimbledon or Grand Slam champion and not elevate your game," Williams said. "I had to weed out the riffraff and just get serious."

From the start, it was obvious that Kvitova -- who won this title last year by crushing Sharapova in the final -- was not merely facing Williams, but her aura, her outsized intimidation.

Last week, Williams was not happy that despite her pedigree she faced Yaroslava Shvedova on an outside court (even though Court 2 is considered a "show court") in the round of 16. Nor was she overjoyed by her uneven game that at times looked as if it might get her bounced from the tournament.

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