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Thursday, July 2, 2009

Serena forced into titanic scrap

Photo Titled Serena screams
Serena screams
After 10 days of watching Serena Williams sail majestically through the draw, her semi-final against Elena Dementieva produced the result that everyone had expected. What took everyone by surprise was the way she was forced to go about getting it, the way she had to chase, scrap and battle for every point of her 6-7, 7-5, 8-6 win.

It was the longest women’s semi-final in the Open era at Wimbledon and it was, according to all who saw it, a real belter. The women’s tournament had been fairly predictable until this point but when the former champion took on the former French and US Open finalist, they came up with a classic from first ball to last.

Williams is used to this winning Grand Slam titles business – she has 10 of them, after all. There have been times when she has not been at her fittest or best prepared and yet still she has managed to win the title. With a champion’s spirit and unshakeable self-belief, she dares the opposition to beat her and usually, they take fright and run for the hills. But Williams when she is fit and ready is all but unstoppable.

Dementieva, on the other hand, is one of the tour’s finest runners up. Hampered for most of her career by a first serve that could barely knock the skin off a custard, she has also been gripped by nerves at critical moments. When she lost the French Open final in 2004, winning just three games against Anastasia Myskina, she left in tears muttering, “I hate my serve.”

But the Russian’s fighting capabilities should never be underestimated. Trying to win major trophies without a first serve is not easy and coming so close to achieving that goal – twice – is remarkable. Every other aspect of her game can compete with anyone. Her groundstrokes are ferocious and pin-point accurate; her fitness and movement is impressive; and she may not camp out at the net but, from time to time, she is willing to take her courage in both hands and attack. And she never gives up.

But this year she had come to SW19 with a new set of muscles – the result of a rigorous training programme in the off season – and a new serve.

The powder puff serve that invariably went to the forehand side had been replaced by a reliable and dependable shot that could earn a few cheap points and could dig her out of trouble. It could not compete with Williams’s 20 aces – and Dementieva did throw in eight double faults – but it was not longer a weakness.

The quality of the ball striking from both women was, at times, breathtaking. Few women can live with Williams from the baseline but Dementieva was giving as good as she got and moving her rival from corner to corner and then out into farthest reaches of Centre Court. Trying to get her to stay there was proving a bit of an issue but for two and three quarter sets, she almost managed it.

Williams had been expecting a battle royal but the level of this particular struggle was causing some alarm. By the second set, she was over-cooking her shots in an attempt to blast Dementieva off the court, but that merely led to errors. And she was treating every error like a personal attack, a wounding blow as the Russian came back from a 3-1 deficit and again started to press her case for a place in the final.

When Hawk-Eye judged in favour of Williams and gave her the decisive break of serve in that second set, the shriek of delight from the American could be heard in the car park. It was as if she had won the title. At last she had her nose in front and at last she was making progress.

The crowd, by this time, were on the edge of their seats. Dementieva’s mother, Vera, and Williams’s mother, Oracene, could barely watch as their daughters kept up the pace throughout the third set. That set alone lasted more than an hour as first Dementieva held a match point and then, 23 minutes later, Williams got her racket on a match-winning opportunity.

When Dementieva’s final backhand sailed wide of the line, the crowd rose as one to applaud. They had not expected a spectacle like this. Williams and Dementieva had not expected a struggle like this. Nevertheless, having Serena Williams in the final came as no surprise.

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