For some fans of tennis and some fans of various sports, dominance is boring.
What’s so special about seeing the same winner over and over again, the same movie over and over again? It’s not inherently right or wrong to look at sports this way — it’s simply a matter of taste and preference. The point of emphasis is that for these kinds of people, the fresh storyline — the fresh situation — possesses more value and appeal than it does for others.
Seeing the Los Angeles Clippers in a Western Conference final. Seeing the Chicago Cubs in the World Series. Seeing the Cleveland Browns in the Super Bowl. Seeing a Wimbledon semifinal between players who either haven’t won Wimbledon or haven’t won it in quite some time. New scenarios freshen up sports for many observers. A familiar plot line, resolved in an all-too-familiar way, detracts from the larger experience of (and emotional investment in) sports for a large cross-section of observers.
However, for some of us, dominance in sports can be thrilling and endlessly captivating. One player or one team, despite being so thoroughly accustomed to success and having so little left to prove, still climbs that mountain. One athlete or one organization, despite having set the gold standard in a larger industry for years and years, still devotes a maximum of hard work and attentiveness in the quest to attain even more glories and riches.
We, as human beings, know that as hard as it is to get to the top, it’s far more difficult to stay there. Solo athletes achieve personal milestones all the time, but once that higher threshold is reached, not many athletes continue to build off such feats for years on end. Sports teams deliver special seasons in which they show noticeable signs of progress, but visions of a sustained five- or eight-year rein with an ideal roster never materializes.
For individuals and groups of athletes, finding the ability to remain excellent, to remain clearheaded, to remain in ownership of that often-elusive balance between serenity and ferocity, even after reaching the summit of one’s profession, is the highest of competitive virtues. Only the rarest of rare breeds — as teams and athletes — find this kind of elevated realm.
Plenty of competitors have their moment in the sun. Very few competitors turn single moments into full careers stuffed with nothing but the very best they can give… especially after they’ve already conquered their sport. Dominance, when seen in this larger context of human endeavor and effort, is not just exciting to behold, but absolutely breathtaking.
Consider the example of Serena Jameka Williams, fully on display at Wimbledon after seeing off an in-form version of Victoria Azarenka in the quarterfinals on Tuesday evening.
Azarenka was not and is not a garden-variety challenger to Serena. She engaged the younger Williams sister in two fierce U.S. Open finals; acquired the world No. 1 ranking; has won two major titles; and has typically taken Serena to three sets in recent editions of this rivalry. Despite an injury-caused tumble in the rankings, Azarenka remains one of Serena’s toughest foes, and on Tuesday, she looked very much like a top-3 player in the world.
Midway through the second set, with Serena leading at 3-2, Azarenka — according to Wimbledon’s live scoring — had made only five unforced errors, all double faults. This meant that Azarenka had not committed a single unforced error in a live rally off a ball hit in her direction by Serena. That’s staggering.
A player committed no “live” errors in a set and a half against Serena at Wimbledon? Azarenka was as good as she possibly could have expected to be on Tuesday. Surely, she’d finally beat Serena at a major tournament. Surely, her game was good enough to register this breakthrough. Surely, Serena — who could not merely “survive” the way she did against Heather Watson on Friday, and who would not have the ability to get by the way she did against Anna-Lena Friedsam at the French Open over a month earlier — would not again display the tremendous tennis which has occasionally surfaced in Europe this year, but has not been an everyday part of her game in 2015.
Surely, the laws of averages would suggest that Serena was not going to be good enough this time. Azarenka was establishing too high a standard of play. Serena was 18-0 in majors this year and riding a 25-match winning streak at majors. All great things have to come to an end, right? This was going to be the day when the scales evened out.
Serena cares not for the laws of averages. She defies equilibrium or any kind of balance in the cosmos, be it the tennis cosmos or the entirety of our known universe.
Though outplayed in the first set by a nearly flawless opponent, Serena made very few mistakes in the first two sets. In a number of matches over the past few days (at Wimbledon) and months (Madrid and the French Open), Serena scratched out wins. She basically outlasted opponents by winning a few key points and getting help at the right times. On Tuesday, though, we saw something largely different.
It’s true that Azarenka made an error at 3-2, 40-30, in the second set which gave Serena a look at deuce and the chance to break for a 4-2 lead, which she in fact did. It’s true that Azarenka squandered a break point with Serena serving at 4-2, 15-40, later in the second set. Azarenka could have done a few things to make the final two sets a lot tighter.
Yet, no one on earth can beat the version of Serena Williams which showed up over the final 1.5 sets. This wasn’t just a workwoman’s endurance test, an attempt to avoid mistakes just enough to see the finish line first. This was a portrait of master craftsmanship, the best possible display of tennis one could ever hope for.
Entering the first game of the final set, this tweet came across many #TennisTwitter timelines:
Serena: 30 winners, 7 unforced errors
— Christopher Clarey (@christophclarey) July 7, 2015
For any casual sports fans in the crowd — those who don’t regularly follow tennis — that’s spectacular.
An average of three to four unforced errors in a set represets a microscopically small number. Similarly, an average of roughly 15 winners in a set (unless that set is a 7-5 or 7-6 set; none of these sets on Tuesday lasted beyond nine games, however) is well above average. The ability to produce high totals of winners and low numbers of errors (lots of players will focus on either going for broke or minimizing mistakes, but not both simultaneously) is what the best of the best manage to do.
You might say, “Well, Serena is the best of the best, so of course she did this.” Well, you’re not wrong to say that, but a bit of context is needed. That bit of context goes like this: Azarenka was the first player to play at an elevated level in this match. She was close to perfect in set one. If your opponent is maxing out and you’re absorbing howitzers at every turn, you’re generally going to press, at least a little bit. You will try to go for more on your shots, but that act of going for more usually produces more unforced errors.
Serena did indeed go for more on her shots in the last two sets.
She made very few errors in that third set, when the pressure of a determined opponent, a close scoreline, and the calendar Grand Slam fell on her shoulders.
You saw the 30-and-7 numbers above.
Here were the final numbers from this match for Serena:
Tremendous, intense match Serena: 17 aces, 65 % 1st serve,46 total winners, 12 Unforced Errors 10 of 12 points won at net, 7 of 8 BPS saved
— Christopher Clarey (@christophclarey) July 7, 2015
You can see that Serena pushed her winner-unforced error differential from plus-23 to plus-34. She made just five unforced errors in a nine-game final set, roughly one unforced error for every two games. At 3-1 and 4-2, with Azarenka motivating herself and pumping herself up at every turn, Serena threw down a torrent of service bombs to squelch Azarenka’s attempt at a comeback. After a few genuine wobbles at 5-3, Serena stared at a 0-30 deficit and then a break point at 30-40.
What did Serena deliver on those three must-win points? Try three unreturned serves.
It’s instructive to note that at the French Open, Serena’s serve was not in rhythm. Throughout that tournament — with the exception of a majority of the final against Lucie Safarova — Serena wasn’t loading up on the cheap service points she generally needs to win majors. The serve was not the automatic companion it has been for Serena in the past.
In the final set against Azarenka, it certainly was. Serena didn’t just become “good enough” or “better,” she became her best tennis self. In this match, but especially in set three, Serena played this sport as well as she ever has, and since Azarenka’s performance would have been enough to defeat every other player on the WTA Tour, it can be said that Serena needed every last ounce of brilliance to advance to Thursday’s semifinal against Maria Sharapova.
Speaking of Sharapova, Williams defeated the Russian in a jawdropping Australian Open final earlier this year. In that match as well as this one on Tuesday, Williams watched her opponent play as well as she realistically could. In that match as well as this one against Azarenka, Serena played her VERY best — not A-minus, but straight-A tennis (if not A-plus).
Surely, many would think, the new semifinalists and new major contenders are going to emerge in women’s tennis. Surely, many would think, fresh storylines and unfamiliar occurrences are going to change the landscape.
Yet, those days — which will one day come if only because of the inevitability of time and nature — are not here yet. They’re being held at bay by that defier of time, Serena Jameka Williams.
Defying time? That’s as thrilling and riveting a reality as any lover of sport could ever be lucky enough to witness in a lifetime.
Dominance is anything but boring when it’s authored by Serena Williams… especially at tennis’s most famous and enduringly prestigious event.
Centre Court Wimbledon is the great and grand cathedral of tennis. Serena Jameka Williams continues to produce the most captivating and engrossing liturgies of anyone on this green patch of God’s earth in suburban London.
Who cares if these liturgies, like the Mass itself, are ever so familiar in form and outcome? Victoria Azarenka and Maria Sharapova should, but neutral parties and casual observers should simply sit back and enjoy the show.