All power and no finesse

Published : Jul 11, 2009 00:00 IST

It is no fault of either Serena Williams or Venus Williams that they belong to a generation of programmed baseline bullies — a game at which they are supreme — but that does not make the spectacle any easier on the eye. And what is mystifying as well as disappointing is they are capable of so much more variety, writes Kevin Mitchell.

All that saved this Wimbledon final from descending into a tedious monument to the one-paced predictability that grips women’s tennis was, as ever, the athletic integrity of the Williams sisters.

But, for a Centre Court audience baking quietly in the sun, it was a close-run thing. Sleep beckoned more than once as Serena muscled her way to a 7-6, 6-2 victory to go alongside three wins here over Venus in five finals.

It is no fault of either sister, finalists for the second year running, that they belong to a generation of programmed baseline bullies — a game at which they are supreme — but that does not make the spectacle any easier on the eye. And what is mystifying as well as disappointing is they are capable of so much more variety, as Serena admitted.

There is no denying their intensity and commitment. There is much to admire in their athleticism and technique. But where is the subtlety? Where is the art? What craft there was in the hour and 27 minutes it lasted came mostly from Serena, who moved her knee-strapped older sister from one side of the court to the other before delivering the finishing haymaker, down the middle or wide, but it wasn’t exactly chess.

Serena, who won easily once Venus cracked in the second set, edged ahead of her 11-10 in career match-ups. They were fighting, as someone once wrote of Muhammad Ali’s series with Joe Frazier, for the championship of each other.

This was the 12th women’s final in a row here that has flown by us in straight sets, and the knee-jerk reaction emanating from the BBC commentary box afterwards that playing it over the best of five sets would avoid such brevity deserved only the curt reaction of Tim Henman when the suggestion was put to him a couple of weeks ago: “Hah!”

It is his view, widely shared, that this would only prolong the agony.

Tennis like this turns cynics into nostalgics. How brightly, now, does Evonne Cawley live in the memory? What wouldn’t we give to see Maria Bueno floating at the net again — or Billie-Jean King, probably the finest volleyer ever to wear a dress?

“In two sets there wasn’t one sliced shot,” King said later, “backhand or forehand, not one. It was pure power.” And King is Serena’s idol and mentor.

It wasn’t intended as a criticism, but it should have been. It defies logic that people enjoy watching tennis that looks more like a world heavyweight title fight, each player trading grunt-fuelled blows, lefts and rights, until the other falls.

Venus did just that, twice in the first set, a graphic representation of her sister’s chilling power. There was little in it for much of the session and the feeling was that Venus, who came into the final with success in 34 straight sets behind her, had the momentum to beat her sister, whose struggle in the tournament has been more obvious.

But, as the winner pointed out afterwards, she has now won three Grand Slams in the past year (although not rated No. 1 in the world because of her reluctance to play in minor WTA tournaments), and her ferocious desire to win is palpable.

It surfaced most obviously when she finally came to the net in the tie-break. On one point, she struck the ball so hard, that, when Venus slipped and fell for the second time, it was as if we were witnessing a bar-room brawl.

Venus had begun awfully, with a double fault, but regained her composure quickly, as the first set went with service — although she hardly threatened a break.

She did not make her first voluntary visit to the net until she was up 5-6 with serve, and Serena’s punch was beginning to tell. She was hugely impressive winning the tie-break, and went through the gears in the second set.

The loser admitted later it was at this point she might have changed tactics, but found she could not. “Yeah, I think towards the end I was too far behind the baseline. I did realise that but at that point, I guess it was a little deep into the match.”

That is when it ceased to be a contest; even the Romanov relics looking down from the Royal Box had stopped effecting interest. Venus’s serve fell away under pressure in the second set, as Serena went through her limited repertoire of shuddering passing shots. Venus had no complaints. “Today she was too good,” Venus said. “She had an answer for everything.”

Serena, winner again after six years, said: “I can’t believe I’m holding the trophy, the Venus dish.” It was a light aside on a par with the T-shirt she wore to the press conference, which read, “Are you looking at my titles?” But, on the more fundamental issue of style and strategy, neither felt disposed to apologise for the core values of their tennis.

Venus conceded: “I would have liked to have moved forward. A lot of times, when I had the short balls, they were really low. It’s hard to come in on those and actually hit an effective shot. Possibly, if I slice (I could). I just slice when I have to, not because I want to.”

She contradicted herself later, though, when she said: “In fact, I have a great slice. I just don’t... I don’t know. I’m a shover. Some people push, I shove. That’s my mentality. I can’t help it. It’s just hard to change my mind. If I have a chance to hit or slice, I’m gonna hit it.”

Serena, too, feels comfortable sticking to her game plan, not trying to complicate things, because she knows what works for her, and her best tennis always comes off her booming serve, the fastest in the women’s game. She has hit 72 aces in this tournament, 12 of them against her sister in the final.

The bottom line — or the base line, if you like — is that slugging from the back of the court works for them. It’s just a shame they will barrel through their careers with barely a nod in the direction of the skills and tricks that can make tennis such an enjoyable experience.

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2009

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