Light & Lively
A fitter Serena Williams showed she had lost none of her power in dominating the Sony Ericsson Open
This is an article from the April 14, 2008 issue
FOR ALL her good cheer, Serena Williams is not often a gracious loser. Her defeats are usually accompanied by a withering self-assessment and faint praise, if any, for her opponent. Last year at Wimbledon, where she was beaten in the quarterfinals, she said she'd played at "40 or 50 percent, max," and at the U.S. Open she blamed her loss to eventual champion Justine Henin on Henin's "lucky shots." But Williams has fashioned an ingenious strategy for improving her sportsmanship: win every match. Which she did last week at the Sony Ericsson Open in Key Biscayne, Fla., where her victims included the world's first-, third- and fourth-ranked players. "I love tennis," said Williams, "[but] more than anything I love winning."
Throughout her nine days of play, Williams did what she does best: bludgeon the ball. Her foil in the final, Serbia's Jelena Jankovic, said it was as if Williams were a "heavyweight champion and I'm a feather champion, you know?" But Williams's command performance was a 6--2, 6--0 beat-down of her top rival, Henin, in the quarters. Though Williams had lost her previous three matches against the top-ranked Belgian, she overpowered Henin with strokes that were not only blistering but also well-placed. Henin spent so much time pinned in the corners that she resembled a naughty schoolgirl on a timeout. After the match she said she "didn't have really any courage" to change tactics, a stunning admission from a player known for her guts. But Williams, at her best, will do that to you.
At first blush, anyway, this sublime tennis came at a strange time: Williams hasn't won a major in more than a year, and even after this victory she'll be ranked only No. 9. But her career has always been defined by unexpected—and often unexplained—lapses and surges. In this case, however, there's an obvious reason for her standout play. Though Williams recently described herself as "bootylicious," she arrived in Key Biscayne looking positively toned. (Asked last week how long it had been since she last looked so trim, Williams, 26, responded, "since 1982.")
This improved fitness paid off nicely in her matches. Williams was light on her feet and showed a stamina that she has sometimes lacked in the past. In unpleasantly hot weather in the semis and final, she outlasted younger opponents—Russia's Svetlana Kuznetsova, 22, and Jankovic, 23—in three-setters. "I've been saying that tennis is my priority," Williams asserts. "Hopefully my results will finally start to show what I've been practicing and working on so diligently."
Now Williams's focus will (or won't) turn to the clay-court season, which culminates at the French Open in the late spring. Skeptics will note that she hasn't won in Paris since 2002 and hasn't had much success recently on clay. And, as always, they will dismiss Williams at their own peril.
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Now It's a Blood Sport?
Andy Roddick took out the mighty Roger Federer in Key Biscayne last Thursday, and Nikolay Davydenko beat Rafael Nadal in Sunday's final, but the scene-stealer in the men's draw was Mikhail Youzhny. The 11th-ranked Russian took self-flagellation to new extremes when, after missing a backhand in his third-round match, he belted his pate with his racket, opening a gash (right) that required the attention of the trainer before Youzhny could resume playing. (He won the match but lost in the next round.) The YouTube clip of the incident eclipsed 1.5 million views over the weekend. Perhaps that is what it takes to get the talented Youzhny some deserved attention. Earlier this year he cracked the top eight for the first time. As an encore, in Key Biscayne he cracked his head.