The Inevitable, Inimitable Venus
Posted 11/10/2008 @ 8 :11 PM Steve Tignor - Tennis.com-
The concept of a “turning point” in a tennis match, or any other sporting event, sounds like a myth waiting to be debunked by a hungry young statistician. It takes a minimum of 48 points to win two sets. Can the outcome of one of them, short of a match point that’s lost on a botched overhead, dramatically influence more than a handful of others? Most players will say that if they fail to serve out a set, it will weigh on them for a few games afterward, but only the sorriest competitor fails to recover before he’s thrown away the whole match. If tennis had a stats geek like Bill James, he would have put the turning point out to pasture years ago, the same way he dismissed the “clutch hitter” or the need for a designated “closer” in baseball.
Right? Well, the clutch hitter and the closer have proven to be tough little myths to kill. It turns out that some musty sports concepts—call them old coaches’ tales—may defy logic, but they still hold up under modern-day scrutiny. I haven’t done any research on whether or not turning points exist in tennis, but I am prepared to say that I know one when I see one.
There was no single moment, no single swing, in Sunday’s final in Doha between Venus Williams and Vera Zvonareva that turned the momentum from one player to the other. But there was, late in the first set, something that might best be described as an “inevitability point.” Zvonareva, the event’s equivalent of a lucky loser—she qualified because the higher-ranked Maria Sharapova was out with an injury—and the distinct underdog in this match, was serving for the first set at 5-3. The Russian has been an emotional basket case in the past, but last week she had held it together and gone 4-0 to reach the final. She betrayed no signs of nerves to begin the 5-3 game. She got first serves in, moved in for an overhead, and went up 40-0. On the next point, loose and confident, she stepped back and challenged Williams with a rocket serve into her forehand. Little did Zvonareva know, but she’d just lost the match.
The ball came in fast, but it also came in belt high. Venus, perhaps angry with herself for getting down three set points, took a full backswing, met the ball just in front of her, and thudded back an inside-out forehand return that sent Zvonareva stumbling in futile pursuit. It looked good, it sounded good, and it let everyone in the arena know that no matter what the score was, no one should bet against Venus Williams in this match. After that, it was no surprise when the American came back to break Zvonareva and take the first set to a tiebreaker. And it was even less of a surprise when, despite losing a lead in that tiebreaker, she completely turned the tables in the second and third sets to win 6-0 and 6-2. That one forehand return, which was beyond anything in Zvonareva’s arsenal, had made it all look inevitable.
Not that the lasting image of Zvonareva at Doha should be of her staggering after a Williams winner. With Safina a disappointment, Jankovic returning to second-fiddle form, and Serena Williams returning to the injured list, it was left to Zvonareva to breath some life into the event. While her visor was a little dated, her attitude and consistency were fresh. She rolled over her forehand more smoothly, and with more athletic aggressiveness, than most of her higher-ranked colleagues. She changed directions with the ball more often and with more confidence than I’ve ever seen her before. And Zvonareva managed to make that awkward service motion—she looks like she’s going to fall over backwards as she tosses the ball—work for her. A great athlete can make up for a lot of sins of imprecision on the serve with an explosive upward swing and wrist snap. Zvonareva does that in spades. You just wish she would make it a little easier on herself.
It was a bit of a shock to see the match begin with Zvonareva hitting from on top of her baseline and Williams huffing and puffing from side to side behind hers. But the Russian hits a heavy enough ball to dictate against anyone, and Williams spent most of the first set pulling up on her backhands and spraying them wide. If anything, her bullet return winner at 3-5 loosened her up and maybe even reminded her of who she was—not that a Williams sister could ever forget for long. Later in that game, at deuce, Zvonareva hit a passing shot that appeared to have Williams dead to rights. Venus, who had been sluggish through most of the first set, chose this time to show off her very best. She reached behind her to pick off a backhand half-volley, guided it just over the tape, and put it right on the line for a winner. I’d venture to say that at any earlier, less-crucial stage of the set, she wouldn’t have made that shot, that it would have dropped harmlessly into the net or an inch wide.
We talk a lot about the mental toughness of Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, and Maria Sharapova, to name three. But unlike the Williams sisters, none of them have had the bedrock conviction at every stage of their careers that they should never lose. Federer often has to convince himself of his superiority over the course of a first set before he can play his best. With Venus on Sunday, and with the Williamses in general, it’s their strokes, not their heads, that they have to get under control before they get rolling—the blind sense of on-court superiority is always there, no matter what the score is. It’s there even when they lose. That attitude has annoyed a lot of fans, but I can only imagine what it’s done to their opponents. They must know that, whatever they may try, they're never going to bother the Williams sisters. By the third set on Sunday, it was enough to send Zvonareva, who had played well enough to beat most women, back to meltdown central.
Let’s skip ahead to 4-2 in the third with Williams serving. She’s won the second set 6-0 and built a lead in the third by doing exactly what she wasn’t doing in the first set. Now she’s the one who’s standing on the baseline and running her opponent; she’s the one making first serves; she’s the one wrong-footing Zvonareva with down-the-line shots that are landing a few inches from the sidelines. On the first point of this game, Williams plays meat and potatoes tennis: She pounds a hard first serve and follows it up with a backhand winner into the open court. While she misses a backhand after that, on the next point she comes back with another good one—Venus is rarely afraid to keep going after a shot; if anything, she can been too stubborn in her self-belief. But that only hurts her in the short term.
Before it’s over, Zvonareva gets in a last gasp—she come too far not to. At 30-15, she wheels all the way across the court and sends a borderline-impossible crosscourt backhand zinging past Williams at the net. Forget the meltdown, forget the four blown set points at 5-3 in the first. If we remember Zvonareva at Doha this year, it should be for this piece of spectacular improvisatory shot-making. Now, after all these years of emotional turmoil, she knows how much of it she has in her. She knows what she can do.
Williams, unphased, holds by going back to the meat and potatoes: She belts an unreturnable first serve right at Zvonareva and then breaks for the title, the first season-ender of her career (she’s only played it two other times).
Just as impressive as Williams’ turnaround is how impassive she has been through all of it. This is always true of Venus, of course; she’s been a study in stoical purposefulness since she ran into Irina Spirlea at the U.S. Open when she was 17. Watching her throughout the week in Doha, I was struck by how imposing her stone-cold style is; she makes Nadal look like a hyperactive child and Federer like a bashful teenager. This year there’s been a lot of talk about the Williams sisters, with their limited schedules and long, successful careers, being the right role models for young women players. Good luck imitating what they do. Take one look at the unruffled, unhurried sense of purpose on Venus Williams’ face as she sets up to serve, or the grimace of total determination that replaces it when she tears into a backhand. You know there will never be another player like her.
Steve Tignor, Tennis.com