In the Zone with Serena Williams
For the previous installment in the series, Rob York's In the Zone with Martina Hingis, please click here
Bigger. Stronger. Faster. Better.
What do you do when you are in competition, and your opponent has the advantage over you in all three respects?
I might suggest that you give it everything you’ve got and place the rest in the hands of whatever deity you prefer.
If you are the bigger, stronger, faster, better athlete, I suggest you learn how to master the art of the post-victory press conference.
And this brings us to Serena Williams. . .
The younger Williams sister is quite a magnificent, unique physical specimen. She is far from the “tallest” woman on the women’s tennis circuit—even her very sister, Venus, is almost 6’1”, while Serena is 5’10”—but she is still “bigger” than other women on tour.
Notice her broad, intimidating shoulders, and her insanely muscular thighs. Forget her listed weight of 150-pounds (as compared to her sister’s probably accurate 160); Serena Williams would probably tip the scales somewhere around 165, maybe even 170.
Muscle does, indeed, weigh more than fat, which is in short supply on the fit Serena.
With the raw power concentrated in her core, Serena can bulldoze just about anyone on the WTA Tour. She’s sometimes content to play power baseliner, and she can pull it off.
It’s just that sometimes, her ground strokes betray her. When she’s not in form, her forehand sprays wildly, and when she misses, she misses badly.
However, she also has her days when she is “In the Zone”. . .
Serena Williams has every tool an elite tennis player needs: a big serve (she can crank one in excess of 125 miles per hour), a huge forehand that she can flatten out for power or spin for kick, a two-hand backhand that has actually become her most reliable stroke, and wonderful net instincts and hands.
It’s almost unfair.
At the 2001 U.S. Open, the dogged Swiss Miss, Martina Hingis, had the misfortune of running into Serena when she was on top of her burgeoning game.
Williams faced off with Hingis in the semifinals of the U.S. Open that year. Martina came into the tournament as the longtime world No. 1. Serena was seeded a modest tenth, with whispers emerging that she might become a one slam (1999 USO) wonder.
The match began evenly enough. Hingis was always a determined ball retriever, and there were days that the strategy would frustrate the bigger hitters of the era, such as the Williams sisters, Lindsay Davenport, Amelie Mauresmo, Jen Capriati or Monica Seles.
On this day, Serena was using her all-court game to edge in front of the Ice Princess. She found herself serving for the first set, leading 5-3, at the four minute mark of this clip.
This is when her serve nudged her out of a normal competitive state and into The Zone.
It began with a booming ace down the “T.” 15-love.
Next came a service winner, wide to the Hingis backhand. 30-love.
Another ace, this one wide to the forehand wing, made it 40-0.
Finally, with Martina leaning on her right foot toward the “T,” Serena pounded a perfectly placed serve in the corner of the service box, kicking wide on the Hingis backhand side, which the Swiss could only stare at blankly.
That made it game and first set to Serena Williams, 6-3.
The critical juncture of the match came with Hingis breezing on her own serve, with the second set knotted at 1-all. Hingis was up 40-0.
Proving that her serve was not the only thing going for her, Serena went to work. It’s almost as if she needed to see love-40 on the scoreboard to awaken the ruthless beast inside of her.
A smash on a high, defensive lob bought her to 15-40.
Then, at 30-40, she left her feet and hit the most gorgeous, inside-out, two-handed backhand you will ever see in your life, a heat-seeking missile that landed deep near the line that Hingis had no chance of catching up to.
The score now knotted at deuce, the Ice Princess lost her cool and slammed her racket on the baseline, wondering how she could possibly find herself in such a struggle to hold.
Serena created a second deuce with a brutally difficult and well-executed smash, torquing her body in mid-air to adjust and send it down the line and force Hingis to expend even more energy in the quest to hold serve.
Williams would ultimately break, and return to breezing through her own service games, landing well-placed first serves and keeping Hingis thoroughly off-balance.
Serving to stay in the match at 2-4, Hingis charged the net on a short offering from Serena at 0-15.
Williams smoked a blistering, dipping pass that Hingis was barely able to get her racket on for a nimble backhand volley. There was nothing on the volley, though, and as it hung in the air, Serena had all the time in the world to set her feet for the next pass attempt.
Hingis, seeing a fawning gap to her forehand side, rushed to close down the court. On a full gallop, she could only watch helplessly as her crafty opponent powered a crosscourt backhand to the area she had just abandoned.
Yet another brilliantly disguised two-hand backhand, this one down the line when Hingis was anticipating crosscourt, broke the Swiss Miss for a comfortable 5-2 lead in the second and final set.
For all her brilliant work on groundies from either wing, this day was truly about Serena Williams being in the zone with her serve, saving valuable energy that she was able to throw into breaking Martina’s.
Serving for the match, she spun a bedeviling offering to the Hingis forehand, which was shanked high and wide for 15-0.
It was the last time Hingis would touch a Williams serve on the day.
Serena went down the “T” for 30-0, with Hingis frozen like a statue, unable to decipher where the serve was going.
Another ace wide to the Hingis forehand left the Ice Princess caught like a deer in the headlights. 40-0 and triple championship point.
Serena’s uncorked a final offering that twisted down the “T,” with Hingis flailing in vain to return it. It capped a dominating performance that was far more lopsided than the final result, 6-3, 6-2, might convey.
The statistics have no such problem.
Williams deposited 40 winners (including serves) on the day; Hingis landed only five.
Serena hit 10 aces with no double faults, won seven games at love and did not miss a single first serve in the second set.
That’s 17-of-17 first serves for anyone scoring at home—at the semifinals of the U.S. Open, no less, against the number one seed.
Afterward, Serena said simply, “I can’t serve any better than that. Oh my gosh!”
Hingis admitted to being overwhelmed by the Williams serve.
“I couldn’t read her serve,” she admitted. “She was hitting the lines in the corners. It was difficult to reach and even if I got there, there was not much I could do with it.”
In other words, Serena Williams was “In the Zone.”
Quotes and stats from Sports Illustrated article dated 9-07-01, which can be read here
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