Serena's season a smashing success in more ways than one

Wednesday October 30th, 2013

Serena Williams went 78-4 with a career-high 11 titles, including two Grand Slam crowns, this year.
Ozan Kose/AFP/Getty Images

One baseball announcer used the term "flipping a switch" in talking about David Ortiz's postseason play for the Red Sox. I laughed, because he was using it in the wrong sport, with the wrong player. Serena Williams rightly owns that phrase. Is there anyone in the history of the game (or sports) who can flip a switch like Serena? What is it? An internal decision? Her inner champion coming out? We've seen it so many times, and yet it still blows me away. Yes, she got some help from Li Na in the final of the WTA Championships, but ending the season by winning the last nine games ... so Serena.
-- Jeffrey, Salt Lake City

• You're absolutely right. All these phrases being trotted out to laud Ortiz -- clutch, dogged, meeting the moment -- apply just as well to Williams. And with her, it's not a quirk. It's her M.O. We're surprised those few times when she doesn't "flip the switch."

I wrote this nearly four years ago, after Williams won the 2010 Australian Open, and tell me it isn't hold up just as well today:

For all of Williams's power and athleticism, it's her ... well, whatever word best depicts her will to win ... that is her true gift. And it was on vivid display in Melbourne. Whenever matches tightened, Williams seemed to flip a switch and turn on her best tennis. Whenever all looked dire -- say, down a set and 4-0 to Victoria Azarenka of Belarus in the quarterfinals -- Williams fashioned an escape route. Whenever her body started to flag, she found a surge of energy. Anything to avoid leaving the court a loser. Her secret? She shrugs. "If I lose," she said, "I'm going out hard."

Love her or hate her. But if you love tennis, you have to admire the indomitable Serena Williams. At 32, she has produced a year of quality tennis that we have not seen in quite some time. And she went the whole year without being defeated in straight sets. Fatigued at the end of a long year, as anyone (especially a trentagenarian) would be playing this grueling sport, she showed her mettle and mustered the mental fortitude to rise above her physical limitations in her last two matches to yet again reign supreme. Kudos to Serena for a job well done.
-- D. Harris, Memphis

• In addition to a masterful use of the word "trentagenarian," D. Harris is absolutely correct. Williams put the martini garnish on another brilliant season by winning the WTA Championships last weekend. While player after player complained of fatigue and burnout, Williams did what she usually does: found another level of shale to drill into and prevailed.

Serena won "only" two Grand Slam titles this year, but this may have been her most dominant season yet: 78-4 with 11 titles. That she is 32 -- a full 14 years removed from her first major title, the 1999 U.S. Open -- is only more reason for admiration.

As for D.'s point about "love her or hate her," here's one sphere in which Williams has really backslid lately: polarization. She's really losing her touch there. Subtly but unmistakably, she is no longer cleaving public opinion. Which is to say: The haters are becoming an endangered species.

Part of this is her doing. Serena's comportment and conduct were darn near impeccable in 2013. Even when goaded into controversy (see: Stephens, Sloane), she didn't veer from the high road. She played a full schedule all over the world -- "supporting the tour," as the old-timers like to say, as if this is a pro bono exercise and not a job. On the one occasion she made some ill-considered remarks about another player, she apologized and moved on.

And then there was that relentless excellence on the court. On a variety of surfaces and against a variety of opponents. In different counties and climates. Against lesser lights and, particularly, against potential rivals. At an age when a male analogue is, sadly, no longer the player he once was.

No one is obligated to like a certain player. In the face of all this, I submit that the dwindling anti-Serena contingent simply looks small. The usual allegations -- she's arrogant! She always shakes the chair's hand first! Four years ago, she threatened a lineswoman! -- just seem so petty in the face of her achievements.

You just don't throw enough crumbs the way of your Asian subcontinent readers when referencing other sports. So here's an attempt to set this gross injustice right. As far as the coin toss goes, cricket is the only major sport (!) where the toss makes a difference. The nature of the surface is an integral part of the game, and it varies over the course of play, so the decision to bat or field first is absolutely critical. I did some quick research and figured that over the last 136 years of test cricket, winning the toss gives the team about a 5 percent advantage. How I wish there was such data for tennis!
-- Nitin, Hyderabad, India

• You and me both, my subcontinental friend! Check below for a terrific statistical analysis regarding last week's question.

Last week, you wrote that Jerzy Janowicz has the best chance of winning a Grand Slam title right now from a group of young players that includes Milos Raonic, Fabio Fognini, Grigor Dimitrov, Bernard Tomic and Kei Nishikori. That may be the case, but thank God for Dimitrov. After watching him beat David Ferrer to win the Stockholm Open two weeks ago, I now have some hope for the future of tennis after Roger Federer. Not that he has to be Federer, but here is a player who actually plays brilliant and extremely watchable tennis. He's a player who doesn't just rely on a machine-gun serve and/or the power to blow his opponents off the court or simply wear them down. That was the first full-length match I've bothered watching in a long time.
-- Helle, Zurich, Switzerland

• I hear what you're saying and I agree that Dimitrov is easy on the eyes. (I would add that in my limited dealings with him, he's been exceedingly personable and downright funny. As one of the press-room curmudgeons puts it, "He'll actually give you stuff.") But I think your assessment of the rest of the field is too harsh.

First, there are some knives among the big guns. Benoit Paire, Nishikori and Fognini, for instance, don't play the type of game you're describing. Second, the abundant big guys don't necessarily form a monolith. Raonic, Tomic and Kevin Anderson -- to pick three names -- all play Big Dude Tennis (and would make a mean NBA frontcourt), but their games are anything but similar.

I'm tired of the WTA Tournament of Champions bashing. I understand the complaints: It has taken players away from Fed Cup (although, isn't that really the Russian Federation's fault?), there are dubious wild-card entrants (hello, Bulgaria's own Tsvetana Pironkova!), it's not the best players, etc. But the pluses still outweigh the minuses. The tournament rewards players who have taken the time to enter the smaller events, which the tour must have to survive. It allows mid-level players who have had pretty solid seasons to battle it out for a little exposure, prestige and money. Pironkova got a wild card? Who cares? She's not the worst player ever (hello, former Wimbledon semifinalist!). If this event were being played in Washington, D.C. or Charlotte, don't think for a second that an American wouldn't get a wild card. Anything to sell tickets! Just my $0.02.
-- Charlie G., Washington, D.C.

• Your note reminds me of this. From the fairness and balance department, here's Jeff W. of Columbus, Ohio: "Why have we never heard of the WTA Tournament of Champions? This is a thing? With two entrants who aren't 2013 "champions"? Tsvetana Pironkova? For real?"

Marin Cilic returned to the ATP Tour this week after serving a four-month doping suspension.
Julian Finney/Getty Images

What's with the way tennis deals with positive drug tests? It seems like tennis rewards players like Marin Cilic who accept a "double secret probation" before they exhaust appeals. It encourages innocent people to quickly plead guilty and lets guilty people reduce their suspension. I can't think of another sport that would allow/encourage a player to fake an injury, at the sport's premier event, to cover up an investigation of a positive test.
-- Adam, Wisconsin

• I think we're all in agreement that there are problematic dimensions to tennis' anti-doping protocols: the paucity of funding and, thus, out-of-competition testing. The strange public relations, whereby some journeyman satellite player with a ranking higher than a prize-money total gets clipped and suddenly there's a worldwide news story about a "tennis bust." Empirically, the proportion of successful appeals is troubling. So is the concentration, rankingswise, of players caught.

But on the Cilic issue -- and here's the full report that's worth reading before going further -- it's a classic no-win. He tests positive for a banned stimulant in May. If he continues playing until he is formally "charged," as is his right, he might well be forced, retroactively, to relinquish his prize money and points, and he becomes a pariah in the locker room. (see: Odesnik, Wayne.) Imagine if Cilic had played Wimbledon and beaten you. "Wait, you knew you were likely going to have to forfeit your victories and you played anyway? You took food off my table, you #$%&*!"

On the other hand, if you're Cilic and believe you are wrongly accused or there was false a positive (or the tribunal would buy your explanation), if you take a provisional suspension:

-- It creates the appearance of guilt.

-- Those in the know are put in a position of withholding truth. Cilic's Wimbledon absence was attributed to a knee injury when he and the officials knew that was blatantly untrue. This is a bad look in a vacuum. But particularly in the anti-doping universe, where "transparency" is a buzzword and honesty and credibility are essential, you cannot be in the business of trafficking in lies.

-- You are essentially forgoing huge opportunities. If Cilic had lost in the early rounds of every summer tournament for which he was eligible, he still would have made at least $100,000.

Then again, by taking the suspension, his "clock" is ticking and he is essentially serving his time while awaiting the ruling. When the arbitrators agreed to commute his sentence last week, he was almost at the end of his suspension and was thus able to enter the Paris Masters. (He beat Igor Sijsling in the first round before losing to Juan Martin del Potro.)

There's no tidy solution and someone is aggrieved no matter what. But the "provisional suspension" seems like the best of a bad set of circumstances.

With Maria Sharapova's absence due to injury, this was the first year since 1997 (!!!) that the WTA Championships didn't feature a singles player from Russia. Many Russians who played in the event are now retired or inactive (including Anna Kournikova, Anastasia Myskina, Elena Dementieva, Dinara Safina and Anna Chakvetadze -- remember her???). The others are ... WTHGO'ing (Svetlana Kuznetsova, Vera Zvonareva, Nadia Petrova). Just an interesting tidbit.
-- Russianista , Washington D.C.

• And you call yourself a Russianista? Check out the rankings. There are six Russians in the top 26. And no others in the top 100. For the Fed Cup final against Italy, Russia's team will be composed of Alexandra Panova, Alisa Kleybanova, Irina Khromacheva and Margarita Gasparyan. Average ranking? 219. You have to admire the candor of the captain, Shamil Tarpischev. "We practically have no chances to win the final," he said. "We are going not to win but to warm up our young players."

There's obviously some (bad) luck involved here and some imprecision here. Players have defected. Players have been hurt. If Sharapova is healthy and Kuznetsova has her head on straight, we're not talking about this. Kleybanova is obviously returning from a significant illness. But it underscores this point: The notion of any one country having an outsized impact on the sport -- much less "dominating" -- needs to be reconsidered.

"British Menu favourite Paul Ainsworth joins our 100 Days of Summer celebration to offer a delicious barbecued mackerel recipe, accompanied by a dreamy celeriac mayonnaise."
-- Barbour International

• The spambots have been brutalizing the Mailbag inbox lately. Discount Uggs. Nicotine gum. "Massaging your chin may help avoid napping." But this one cracked me up. Only in England can there exist "dreamy celeriac mayonnaise."

Shots, miscellany

This Is What They Want, an ESPN 30 for 30 film about Jimmy Connors, premiered Tuesday. Check local listings for re-airs. Here's the trailer and a couple of clips.

More Federer fun on Twitter.

• Mark your iCalendars for World Tennis Day. Very cool posters, too. Unsolicited marketing advice: Sell this online.

• Helen of Philadelphia: "Filip Peliwo will now have Galo Blanco as his coach. This sounds to me like a trendy cuisine and wine pairing."

• Tickets are on sale now for the 2014 Hall of Fame weekend. Lindsay Davenport is among the nominees for next year's class.

• Justin Gimelstob has an event coming up benefiting children's charities, including The Valerie Fund. Andy Roddick and James Blake are scheduled to attend.

• Roddick will also join Venus Williams, among others, for another charity exhibition next month in Orlando, Fla. Billie Jean King and Elton John with co-host.

Catching up with Carlos Moya, Spain's new Davis Cup captain.

• Kush Varshney of Ossining, N.Y.: "I am a researcher in the Business Analytics and Mathematical Sciences Department at the IBM Thomas J. Watson Research Center.. This letter is my own and doesn't necessarily represent IBM's positions, strategies or opinions.

"I analyzed 6,421 men's and women's singles matches played at the four Grand Slam tournaments in the years 2005-2012. Of those 6,421 matches, 54.3 percent ended with the player who served in the first game of the first set winning the match. There was at least one break of serve in 6,411 of those matches. The player who broke first (whenever in the match that it occurred) won the match 68.2 percent of the time.

"Interestingly, the advantage of serving first is pronounced in the first set but reversed in later sets. The player who served first won the first set 53.7 percent of the time. However, the player who served in the first game of the second set won the second set only 46.2 percent of the time. Similarly, in the third, fourth and fifth sets (if the matches went that far), the player who served in the first game of the respective set won the set 45.8 percent, 46.1 percent and 49.2 percent of the time.

"Now let us look at the combined scenario of serving first and breaking first. Among matches in which the player who served first won the match, that player also broke first 63.2 percent of the time. Among matches in which the player who served second won the match, that player also broke first 74.2 percent of the time. To make up for serving second, it is important for a player to break first."

• Aside to Kush Varshney of Ossining, N.Y.: Thanks. I don't have your email, but I owe you a pair of tickets for the 2014 U.S. Open.

• Seth Schwarzman has long-lost siblings: Richard Gasquet and a young Howard Dean.

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