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Beyond the Baseline

Serena completes masterful year, tops Sharapova for first WTA title since 2009

Serena Williams is 31-1 since her first-round loss at the French Open. (EPA/Landov)

ISTANBUL -- Wimbledon. U.S. Open. Olympic gold. WTA Championships. If it was there to be won in the second half of the 2012 season, Serena Williams won it, and she did it with authority. She clinched her 6-4, 6-3 victory against Maria Sharapova on Sunday with a hammer of a forehand return winner to capture her first WTA Championship title since 2009.

Sharapova put aside early any concerns that this match would go the way of their Olympic final, which Williams dominated 6-0, 6-1. This was the best the Russian has played against Williams in years, a "rivalry" in which Serena has won nine consecutive meetings dating to 2005. She served well at 70 percent and kept her errors down, hitting 12 unforced for the match.

But, hey, sometimes the person standing across the net from you is just flat out better at everything, and unfortunately for Sharapova, Williams saved her best performance of the week for the final. Williams served at 68 percent, hit 11 aces and 40 winners to a mere 14 unforced. In the battle of two offensive-minded hitters, Williams consistently got the first strike on the ball, which, more often than not, was also the last strike.

"I think she's a bit better than Sharapova on serves and returns," said Williams' coach, Patrick Mouratoglou. "They have the same types of games because they're both aggressive on the returns, they're both aggressive on the serve. Maria improved her serve a lot. And in the rally, they go for the winners. Usually, they make the mistakes and the winners. But today Serena made the winners and the mistakes. So she was going maybe for more or earlier. She was better on the first shot.

"If she serves and returns like this, it's not easy because there are no rallies," he said, laughing.

Since pairing with the French coach after the French Open, Williams went 31-1 for the remainder of the year. That's one loss in six tournaments. Playing in her first tournament since winning the U.S. Open in September, Williams spent the week downplaying her expectations. But now that she's wrapped up what she admits is her best season since her three-Slam run in 2002, Williams admits she wanted it. Badly.

"Yeah, I wanted it so bad but I didn't want to say it," she said, laughing. "I had such a good year, winning Wimbledon and U.S. Open and Olympics, it's like a heavy favorite going in to win this title, so for me it was really important. I mean, for my own sanity, so to say, I really wanted it, even though I didn't need it."

And what a year it's been. She started the season by rolling her ankle in Brisbane and losing in the fourth round at the Australian Open to Ekaterina Makarova. She sputtered again in Miami, losing to Caroline Wozniacki in the quarterfinals. After a successful clay season with her first titles of the year, in Charleston and Madrid, she went into the French Open primed to win. Instead, she suffered her only first-round loss at a Slam, to Virginie Razzano, and the scenes of her crying on a changeover in the third set aired all over the globe. The crushing defeat left Williams emotionally shattered. But after a pep talk from her family and renewed focus under Mourataglou, she dusted herself off to go on a 19-match winning streak.

"She's really motivated," Mouratoglou said. "That's really what's the most impressive with her. Because after being 31, 15 Grand Slams, being five times No. 1, keeping this will to win and this will to go on court and practice every day in order to keep winning Grand Slams, I think this is really what makes the difference. For me on the men's draw, it's the same way with Roger [Federer]. They're really special for that. Some win one Grand Slam and they're happy all their life."

That's definitely not the case for Williams, who said she was already identifying things to work on in the offseason during Sunday's match.

"The day I feel that I can't improve, I think that's the day I should probably hang up my racket," she said.

Those are scary words for her rivals, each of whom she dominated all year. Though she'll end the year ranked No. 3 behind Victoria Azarenka and Sharapova -- she can blame her results in Australia and Paris and her decision to skip Indian Wells and Beijing for that -- she went 8-0 against them in 2012 and finished 58-4 overall. She'll be the heavy favorite when the Australian Open rolls around in January as long as she's healthy, and Williams could take over the No. 1 spot then.

After a few weeks away from the court, she'll base her offseason training at Mouratoglou's Academy in Paris and then head to Mauritius to train with Mouratoglou's other charges. If that sounds like a fairly heavy offseason load, Williams says not to worry.

"Everyone is going to be training two and three times [a day]," Williams said. "I told Patrick, 'Now, look. I train in the morning and I'm at the beach in the afternoon. We have to have some sort of understanding here.'

"So I'm excited about that. It'll be like a mini vacation for me. I feel like I'll work hard and be laying out."

Much-deserved rest for the WTA's player of the year.
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