The Serena phenomenon


KIM CLIJSTERS, Patty Schnyder, Meghann Shaughnessy, Justine Henin and Chanda Rubin are sterling young women, with a buzzing ambition and dexterous ability.

On their own they are useful tennis players; together they are almost unique, a statistic that might stand longer than they will. In short, from January to November this year, and across every surface, they are the only five women to have beaten Serena Williams (when Clijsters did so last week at the year-end WTA Championships, her face echoed disbelief.)

It is a stunning number in a competitive era, a consistency that leaves little room for twisted ankles, bad hair days, exhaustion and inspired opponents. To give it some perspective, Jennifer Capriati lost five matches this year just to Serena.

Simply put, there has been a staggering change in women's tennis and it is best measured through grammar. The plural has been taken out of the word Williams. Serena, it is evident, is a singular champion. Venus is in momentary eclipse.

No one ever took Richard Williams seriously. This was not hard to do. He once told Martina Hingis that he had a doctor friend who could saw off her legs and fit on longer ones. So when he once said, years ago, that Serena was going to be the better player among the sisters, everyone said 'thank you' and moved on. Of course there was a one in two chance of that happening, but now he is considered a visionary.

Till recently women's tennis was an artful mix of styles and personalities, Seles and Hingis, Williams and Williams, Davenport and Henin, Clijsters and Capriati, all tugging at each other's ambitions, and no player truly mastered the rest. One merely had a better year than the other.

Serena has restored the word 'dominate' to the argument. She has been in nine finals and lost just one, and how telling is that. She has won eight tournaments and Capriati, who is No. 3, only one. She has won just one more title than Venus but she has beaten her in the finals of the French, Wimbledon and the US Open. The last time she had the gall to discipline her elder sister before this was 1999. Go figure.

She has gone from chasing the pack to hunting down history, she is finding her name discussed as much with her peers as her predecessors. There is reason why. Only one other woman has won Wimbledon and the US Open without dropping a set and her name is Martina Navratilova.

Indeed, only six other women have, like Serena, won three consecutive Grand Slam titles in a year: Graf, Navratilova, Maureen Connolly, Billie Jean King, Helen Wills Moody, Margaret Court. It is a feat better understood by the names that are missing: Seles, Chris Evert, Maria Bueno, Hingis.

All champions have defining years, when hard work and desire fuse together, when all the elements that make up greatness coalesce. It is like shedding old scales and finding a new skin, which of course in Serena's case might literally be her form-fitting, pink cat-suit in which she rarely loses.

She is as wide as Venus is tall, as muscular as her sister is lithe. She is rarely elegant and constantly brutal, and bulls in a china shop have nothing on her. Her arms of a longshoreman and a grunt that sounds like someone next door lifting a piano give an impression of pure labour. It suggests there is little science to her game and as much art as a mason laying bricks.

There is both truth and nonsense to this. Serena's game admittedly has a majestic heft to it, she seems to destroy rather than create, hammering the ball as if she spends her spare time nailing coffins. Her serve is apt to gouge the court and it is hard for opponents to return something they occasionally cannot see. She has cleaned up her technique, especially on the backhand, and though she collects errors like junk jewellery, she mostly makes up for it with a river of winners.

Against Anna Smashnova in the WTA Tour Championship (a congregation of the best women in the world), Serena hit 28 winners while her opponent had none. As Smashnova, whose surname is at odds with a game based on consistency, said later, still gasping, "She overpowered me, she's a different level."

But power has obscured other virtues. At Wimbledon, for instance, Amelie Mauresmo, who was massacred by 6-2, 6-1 by Serena, paid tribute to her rival's exploration of fine angles. In one of her many strange admissions, Serena once revealed that her most memorable experience was receiving an 'A' in geometry in school. Clearly, it is part of her game that garners inadequate attention.

She is also, for a woman of some bulk, a compelling athlete. It is a swiftness that draws her into position to execute her shots, and frustrates her opponents, who find they must often end the point twice. In all, she is an intimidating, powerful physical presence, her forehand as grim as her demeanour. As she says, "On the court I'm a different person. Off the court I'm really nice". Einstein is not required to figure this out.

Serena has been unable to clearly explain the reasons for her revitalised game, except to say, "I was tired of losing". But she is adequately articulate when it comes to the future. "You guys don't know all the stuff I can do. I haven't done all the stuff I can do." God forbid.

She, in typical Williams style, has been keener in the past fortnight to talk about her new sponsorship with McDonalds, her TV cameos and her acting coach. Tour officials would probably prefer her to promote the year-end championship, which inexplicably had 200 people watching during certain matches.

But in a time when Davenport is fighting age and injury, when Hingis has slid off the radar, when Henin is yet to make the breakthrough expected, when Seles is fading, when Capriati is pictured on a bar table after the US Open in her bra with a cigarette in hand (a friend's cigarette, she explained), the WTA tour will probably be content merely with Serena's game. It is speaking volumes in itself.

It has been a great year for Serena, she has ended it No. 1, but it is only one year. Graf finished the year No. 1 eight times; Navratilova seven times. Getting there is easier than staying there. But let's just say this: if Serena wants to play the role of a great champion, then this was a hell of an audition.