The ball landed in the middle of the court, and Serena Williams took aim. As she maneuvered into place, she cocked her right arm. She planted her feet, balanced, turned, clenched her teeth and then let fly. A blistering forehand, dense with pace, sped over the net and whistled past this evening's victim, Maria Kirilenko of Russia, who got out of the way just in time to avoid bodily harm.
The capacity crowd for this fourth-round match of the Australian Open had an interesting collective reaction. A few applauded. A few oohed and aahed. But mostly, they giggled amusedly. This exceptionally powerful woman blasting the ball on one side of the net? And this poor woman on the other, obligated to try and return these missiles? That's funny.
Shots like these are what you might call tangible assets. Williams' fierce forehand? We see that with our own eyes, just as we see Novak Djokovic's backhand return or Roger Federer's footwork or Rafael Nadal's cutting, spin-drizzled forehand.
But Williams, like all champions, has other, more abstract assets. Mental toughness. Experience. Reputation. And they coalesce in a single asset that may be most important of all: aura.
Serena Williams has an aura. There is a vibe, a radiance, a je nais se quoi -- as any of the four Frenchmen in the round of 16 would say -- she carries with her, on the court and throughout the complex. Other players look up when she walks by. They read the transcripts of her interviews. They glance at what she's eating in the lounge. They stop and watch her matches on the monitor. They whisper about her orange and purple ensemble.
What's an aura worth? A game or two a set, says Martina Navratilova. Other times, though, players look defeated before they even take the court. Williams won Monday, 6-2, 6-0, playing comprehensively dominating tennis, committing just six unforced errors to 22 winners. But, Kirilenko -- a top-15 player, mind you -- did not to impede the progress. When she lost, she looked as though the evening went about as well as planned.
"It's a bad feeling not knowing how to win a point," she said in Russian, according to Swiss reporter Rene Stauffer. "With her serve she should play on [the] men's tour."
Different players have different auras. Djokovic now has an aura of an indefatigable fighter. We saw that Sunday night in the match of the tournament -- and possibly the year. Stan Wawrinka played at a level close to perfect for 90 minutes. But then he left the zone and headed to the trenches.
"I knew [Djokovic] was going to fight to the end and give me nothing," Wawrinka told the Swiss press. "That's who he is."
When, around 2 in the morning, Djokovic won an insta-classic 1-6, 7-5, 6-4, 6-7 (5), 12-10, it only added to his aura.
Federer has an aura, too, of course. Players know that he is, well, Roger Federer, capable of magic. They open up leads and then remember who's on other side of the net. That's aura. And it was in evidence Monday when Federer dispatched torpedo-serving Milos Raonic 6-4, 7-6 (4), 6-2.
Aura can change in dimension. A year ago, when she was ranked No. 1, Caroline Wozniacki had at least some aura. Now? Not so much. In her fourth-round match, Svetlana Kuznetsova, ranked No. 75, played Wozniacki as though it was hers for the taking. And she took, 6-2, 2-6, 7-5.
Maria Sharapova didn't come to Australia with much aura. But after losing just five games in four matches, she now has it spades. Serena Williams has always had an aura. But it's partiuclarly strong now, as she's won 39 or her last 40 matches and hasn't lost at a major since Memrorial Day weekend.
In her next match, Williams plays Sloane Stephens, the 19-year-old American with game and personality in equal measure who broke through earlier Monday. By beating the voluble Serb Bojana Jovanovski, Stephens reached her first major quarterfinal and assured herself a top-20 ranking. Minutes after Stephens' match, the chatter was about Williams and her aura.
"Serena wants to intimidate her," Patrick McEnroe said. "Trust me, Serena wants to squash her."
Asked about facing the most feared and fearsome player in the draw, Stephens said, "There won't be that like first time, 'Oh, my God, I'm playing Serena.' ... She's obviously one of the greatest players to ever play the game. Without all that, it's still a tennis match. ... You've just got to go out and play."
Easier said than done. But there's this incentive. Take down the great Serena Williams, and it'll be great for Stephens' aura.
Are Murray and Kuznetsova the best players to have never reached No. 1?-- Ryan, Denver
? That's about right. Kuznetsova has two majors. That's as many as recent No. 1s Ana Ivanovic, Jelena Jankovic, Caroline Wozniacki, Victoria Azarenka and Dinara Safina have combined. As for Murray, yes, he's no longer the BPNTHWAS, but he is the BPNTHBRNO.
Do you think Venus Williams will win another Slam?-- Nestor Cotiyam, Quezon City, Philippines
? Awfully big ask. Some of it is obviously physical. At this age, is she capable of going through seven matches without incident? But, sadly, I don't think her game is there, either. She can stand and blast with players. But she's lost a step of movement. Her serve isn't the weapon it once was. She seems to have little interest getting to the net, a location her father has urged her to spend more time at her entire career. If a deep run does come, it will be at Wimbledon. But, on the heels of that unsightly 6-1, 6-3 loss to Sharapova, it's hard, sadly, to be too optimistic.
I thought Sharapova and Azarenka were bad with their shrieks, but Jovanovski is out of control. I would not watch if she wasn't playing Stephens.-- YC, Los Angeles
? Brad Gilbert: this has to evoke a rule change.
Rennae Stubbs: OK, I have to say Jovanovski is a sweet girl, but this grunt is ridiculous!
People keep talking about the WTA Big Three in Serena, Sharapova and Azarenka. But maybe what we have right now is a Big Four. Agnieszka Radwanska has proved unbeatable by the field, except the Big 3, of course.-- Ethan Caleb David, Manila, Philippines
? If Murray was only a borderline Big Four member before his major, it's tough to put Radwanska in the WTA Big Four. No majors. Only one major final. Not even as many major semis as you might suspect. That said, it could all change soon. She's been playing brilliantly to start the year. One reader threw this one at us: she has won more matches in Australia this month than Sam Stosur has won over the last five years.
Azarenka got mouthy about Lance Armstrong's cheating? Unbelievable. However guilty he is, I doubt he ever shrieked at other riders to make them fall off their bicycles.-- Doyle Srader, Eugene, Ore.
? Two points:
1) I'm totally with Azarenka, both re: her right to make such strong remarks and the content. Athletes everywhere ought to be absolutely irate with Armstrong. It's frauds like Armstrong -- defiant liars who dope and then hide behind the "I never failed a test" card -- who create such skepticism among fans and cause us to temper awe of athletic achievement with skepticism.
2) I wish Azarenka could stop her shrieking for a variety of reasons, but here's a big one: it has come to define her. She's the No. 1 player in the world, a defending Slam champ. And, still, she is best known among too many casual fans for her audio track.
Love Jamie Hampton and her forehand. She made Azarenka look completely beatable (6-4, 4-6, 6-2). Your thoughts on the match?-- Sumit, Jersey City, N.J.
? Agree. Hampton was in every rally, wasn't awed by the occasion and moved quite well. Closing out a match as an underdog is a challenge (see: Wawrinka), but if Hampton's back doesn't act up, she's right in that match.
? Owen of the U.K.: "Did you see Pancho Gonzales destroy Rod Laver? Lew Hoad at Wimbledon? The Pete Sampras second serve? If you had then you would know why I, who saw all the above, do not agree with your assessment of Federer as GOAT."
? Jim Yrkoski of Warsaw, Poland, has long-lost siblings: Gilles Simon and Luther from 48 Hours; A young David Patrick Kelly.
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