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SW22 at SW19: Serena Williams adds to her legend in the cradle of tennis

AP Pool Photo - Andy Rain

Serena Williams didn’t plan on losing two major finals this year, but those losses enabled her to join Steffi Graf at the place where tennis history is most revered.

No offense to the Australian or U.S. Opens, whose championship trophy presentations are lengthy affairs unnecessarily bogged down by a focus on commercialism, but if your spiritual home is not a clay court, Centre Court is the best stadium in the world to achieve a timeless tennis milestone.

Wimbledon is the oldest tennis tournament on this planet. The sport sprouted from English lawns in the 1870s, growing as organically as blades of grass emerge from planted seeds. Until 1975, three of the four tennis majors were played on grass. Today, Wimbledon is the only major played on the green stuff. In a sense, this makes The Big W an aberration, but the tournament’s place in the history books remains unmatched.

Greatness is remembered and appreciated everywhere. Major-tournament accomplishments count just as much in Melbourne and New York as they do in Paris or the small village in suburban London. Yet, the timelessness of Wimbledon — barely any commercial markings, the royal box, the clean simplicity of tennis whites — lends a lasting quality to its achievements and the people who forge them.

Serena Williams’s losses in the Australian and French Open finals this year weren’t part of any design, but they did allow this 22nd major title — won over Angelique Kerber in a genuinely excellent women’s final on Saturday — to resonate more deeply.

It’s appropriate that a player of Serena’s stature matched Graf’s all-time major championship mark while also matching Graf’s seven Wimbledons. It’s appropriate that after Kerber (temporarily) kept Graf, her idol, in front of Serena on the all-time major title list by winning the Australian Open final, Serena was able to settle a score five and a half months later.

What’s even more special about the twisting, turning series of events which led to “SW22 at SW19” is the way in which Serena Jameka Williams added to her legend.

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In the Australian Open final — won by Kerber in three sets — the German hit 55 percent of her first serves. When forced to play second-serve points on her own serve, Kerber won 47 percent of the time. She made only 13 unforced errors — a central reason she won — but more than that, she stayed in rallies long enough to pressure Serena into making her own mistakes. Hang on that thought in order to appreciate the Wimbledon final you just witnessed.

Saturday afternoon on Centre Court, Kerber served demonstrably better than she did in Melbourne. She hit 67 percent of her first serves (a 12-percent increase) and won 68 percent of her second-serve points (21 percent better than Australia). She committed only 9 unforced errors, but what’s more is that — in keeping with the nature of grass-court tennis — rallies were shorter but more intense than on a hardcourt, a more neutral surface in which players can expect a reliable bounce all the time. Grass tennis features smaller margins than tennis on any other surface. Kerber’s ability to commit only nine unforced errors in the face of Serena’s power made her match performance an A-minus… at worst.

At worst.

A B-plus first set was followed by a straight-A second set which unspooled one classic point after another. Serena sprinkled in the occasional backhand error, and her returns weren’t poorly calibrated for portions of the match, but the level of ballstriking and serving created a number of unforced errors which were essentially forced — “essentially” in the sense that imposing play from the other side of the net understandably creates pressure within the flow of competition. Both players pushed each other in this manner. Therefore, the amount of truly bad misses in this match — again, in the face of pronounced all-court, all-angle quality from each baseline — was miniscule.

Kerber, by nearly every reasonable standard, played a better match than in Australia… where she won.

The final result at Centre Court on Saturday? Kerber absorbed a straight-set loss, not even forcing a tiebreaker in either set.

Does that begin to give you an impression of how majestically powerful Serena was in this match?

 

Both players could only smile after playing a high-level women's final. - AP Photo / Ben Curtis

Both players could only smile after playing a high-level women’s final. – AP Photo / Ben Curtis

Kerber very much earned her win in Melbourne, wresting a tight match from Serena’s grasp with exceptional defense. Yet, Serena just as clearly left the door open for her opponent that night. She served seven aces with six double faults. She made only 53 percent of her first serves and won a less-than-ideal 69 percent of first-serve points. (Elite servers want to be in the 80s.) Beyond the realm of the serve — where Serena stands alone in the history of women’s tennis — the World No. 1 sprayed 46 unforced errors.

As the scene shifted to Wimbledon for this final — marking the first time since 2006 (Amelie Mauresmo, Justine Henin) that two WTA players contested two major finals in the same calendar year — a fascinating subplot emerged.

Serena’s coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, emphatically stated that “the real Serena” would emerge against Kerber. In team sports, it’s natural for a coach to talk a big game, perhaps taking pressure off the players or lighting a fire in a distracted locker room. In a solo-athlete sport, where it’s entirely up to the participants to define the terms and quality of battle, it felt unusual to see a coach talk tough before a high-stakes match. Serena was the one who needed to do the talking.

Her coach’s words clearly weren’t a distraction.

The 34-year-old — who reaffirmed her place as the best player in the WTA with this triumph — dramatically lifted her game relative to Melbourne. This is how Kerber could play a better match than she did in Australia… and lose in straights.

The 7-6 ace-double ratio Serena served up in Melbourne became a 13-3 ratio on Saturday. Those 13 aces don’t even account for the service winners and unreturned serves Serena produced. Serena hit 65 percent of first serves, an excellent number not just because of the quality of her first delivery, but because of Kerber’s return prowess, which can make many fine servers tighten up. Serena just kept raining thunder on her opponent, winning 88 percent of first-serve points.

Serena’s first-serve greatness — which eclipses all of her contemporaries and predecessors in the history of women’s tennis — was never more apparent than at 3-3, 30-40, in the second set. With Kerber on the doorstep of turning the match around — arriving at her first (and as it would turn out, only) break point — Serena clobbered two straight aces and then won a fierce rally to hold for 4-3.

Kerber made her big push, but Serena’s trump card — the serve no one else has (or has ever possessed in the women’s game) — thwarted the German. In the next game, the domino effect of that hold became apparent, as Kerber — under the gun one more time despite playing so well — made a few errors. Those brief and rare lapses were all Serena needed to break serve, as had been the case at 6-5 in the first set. Serena closed with one more barrage of first serves, and just like that — in only 81 minutes of glorious tennis — SW22 at SW19 became reality.

This match offered one last reminder that the length of a match and its quality are fundamentally unconnected to each other. Yes, four hours of brilliant tennis will always please a crowd more than 81 minutes of it, but brilliance remains brilliance.

Angelique Kerber offered a lot of it. Serena Jameka Williams offered a lot more.

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Serena Williams won so often last year — very nearly completing the Grand Slam — that it felt tedious and somewhat repetitive to address the “is she the best of all time?” question after every new championship.

With the benefit of some space and time between titles, this is the kind of match which makes it a lot easier to elevate Serena above all others — Graf very much included.

When Serena clobbered Caroline Wozniacki in the 2014 U.S. Open final, the difference in weight class was undeniable. The 2015 French Open and 2015 Wimbledon finals came against first-time major finalists, Lucie Safarova and Garbine Muguruza. Those were uneven, nerve-addled matches in spots, demonstrations of Serena’s perseverance more than uninterrupted displays of pure excellence.

Serena’s win over Maria Sharapova in a superb 2015 Australian Open final featured the World No. 1 at her best against a five-time major champion. That felt like a legacy-increasing achievement, but even then, it can’t be denied: Serena has such a comfort zone against Sharapova that it was hard to doubt her at any point in that particular competition.

This match against Kerber was relatively unique within the course of the past two years of Serena’s remarkable journey. Kerber — akin to Victoria Azarenka a few years ago — began to emerge as the No. 2 player and global contender who could push Serena and force her to play her best. Kerber won the previous high-stakes meeting between the two players. Kerber — not Serena — was the player who won all 12 of her sets at this Wimbledon entering the final. Kerber — already on a roll — continued to play her very best in the final.

Serena — just short of her 35th birthday (by two months) — forcefully and decisively defeated her, anyway.

You want to know what all-time, best-of-the-best greatness looks like? You saw it on Saturday.

You want to know what all-time, best-of-the-best greatness sounds like?

Read this:

That’s another thing which sets Wimbledon apart: the Champions’ Ball.

Serena might have privately danced if she had won her 22nd major in Australia, the United States, or France, but at the All-England Club, she gets to dance in public and receive more recognition for her feats.

She also gets to revel in avenging a stinging defeat against an inspired German opponent who has authored a stirring and striking career transformation in 2016.

It might not have been better that Serena Jameka Williams lost two major finals this year, setting up SW22 at SW19 this summer at Wimbledon, but doing what she did — in the way she did it — will echo through the pages of time.

Winning major No. 22 and tying Steffi Graf wouldn’t have carried less value anywhere else, but resonance — something slightly different from raw numerical value — never carries more weight than at The Championships.

Wimbledon.

SW22 at SW19: Serena Williams adds to her legend in the cradle of tennis

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