Grass Roots Three: Rafael Nadal and Serena Williams Storm Wimbledon 2010
In the end, it departed from the script very little.
And in the end, no one could have any argument with the result.
Because, in the end, it was the top dogs, the two world No.1's, who were crowned king and queen at the All England Club on the first weekend of July.
Rafael Nadal and Serena Williams were unquestionably the deserving winners.
While it was no surprise to see these two stride onto Centre Court to take up their finals places, it was rather more of a surprise to see who they faced over the net.
A betting man would have put his wager on Serena to play sister Venus and Nadal to play arch-rival Roger Federer.
After all, Venus was a five-times winner, and she and her sister had shared the 21st century spoils at Wimbledon eight times this decade.
Federer had been there on finals day every year since 2003, and had won it six times. When he didn’t win, Nadal did.
But this year, the former champions both fell in the quarterfinals to leave their biggest adversaries to step up and take the titles.
So here they are, Rafa and Serena, up close and personal, in the third and concluding part of a series celebrating the highlights of Wimbledon 2010.
Nadal’s Scorching First Tuesday
There was some controversy as soon as the Wimbledon 2010 seedings came out. The No. 1 in the world was seeded No. 2.
That meant Nadal’s campaign began on opening Tuesday, though it little mattered to him. The weather held fine all week and the middle Sunday buffer ensured a rest day before the men all arrived in the fourth round on second Monday.
The Tuesday schedule did have a benefit for yours truly, though. A Centre Court ticket meant an early appraisal of the splendid Spaniard.
He first played Kei Nishikori, an unpredictable package who nevertheless went in the predictable way: a straightforward three-setter. It was classic Nadal: powerful, fast, and determined. No contest, despite the obvious talent of the rising Japanese player.
Nadal was scheduled to face a few tricky opponents in his segment of the draw, not least the dangerous and thrilling Ernests Gulbis, who had just squeezed a seeding on the back of an excellent spring run.
So when Gulbis withdrew with a thigh injury, Nadal’s team might have heaved a sigh of relief. Little did they know what was in store…
Serena: Low On Matches, High On Wins
The remarkable Serena had played just five tournaments in 2010 ahead of Wimbledon, yet stood head and shoulders above the competition in the rankings.
Since winning the Australian Open, she’d wrestled with injury, coming into the major clay events with no tournament practice, yet she reached the semis in Rome and the quarters in the French Open. And clay’s not even her best surface.
With her record at Wimbledon—three titles prior to 2010, plus two more finals—she was aiming to prove once more that, much as she did in Melbourne, she can simply turn up and knock the socks off everyone else with no preparation on grass at all.
As defending women’s champion, she kicked off proceedings on Centre Court on first Tuesday. Not a bad day to have a ticket, then: Serena, followed by Rafa…
Her draw looked rather more benign than Rafa’s in the early rounds, and became more so when her first potential seeded opponent fell at the first fence.
So Serena’s progress was—well—serene. She delivered a “bagel” to her first three opponents, dropping just 10 games in all.
But things looked more threatening by the fourth round.
Rafa From The Bleachers
The joy of Wimbledon—even in the latter stages—is that the courts are a hive of activity and are remarkably accessible.
While the wheelchair competitors practiced on court 17, Nadal practiced on court 16—one of the most favored courts for the most sought-after players because it is only 100 meters from the clubhouse.
There are just three rows of seats on either side, but they are tiered and so provide perfect viewing in an intimate environment. The 100 or so spectators were pin-dropping quiet, while Rafa ripped it up at full pelt. Even in practice, there are no half measures.
Every full-blooded forehand came with the familiar roar of a bull and, drawn by the well-known call, the court was soon packed to brimming.
How often can the everyday fan get this close to a tennis superstar? Where else would he be allowed to ply his trade in such respectful peace?
It was a chance, simply, to soak up the aura.
Serena From The Bleachers
It was a bit of a squeeze, but down on Court Eight, just ahead of the start of the day’s play, Serena was attempting a low-key warm-up in preparation for her one p.m. start.
It took a moment to recognise her, with uncharacteristic cap tipped forward over her face and body swathed in a white sweat-top.
But it was worth edging down the steps and pleading with the steward for a moment crouched at courtside to take some photos.
Apart from the atypical apparel, everything else was in place: coach, mum, and dad, all solicitous, protective, hovering around the court.
There was little cause for concern. The vantage points may have been full, but the spectators paid quiet attention, simply enjoying a great exponent going through the motions.
Nadal Hits The Buffers
Where Nadal had sailed through the first round, many other seeds had hit stormy waters. Federer, Nikolay Davydenko, and Novak Djokovic all had five-set scares, while Fernando Verdasco, Tommy Robredo, Stan Wawrinka, Ivan Ljubicic, Juan Carlos Ferrero, Nicolas Almagro, and Marcos Baghdatis didn’t make it to the second round at all.
In Nadal’s segment, the tricky prospect of a meeting with John Isner in the fourth round was snuffed out by the extraordinary match between the American and Nicolas Mahut. A three-day tennis match is not the best preparation for a Grand Slam run, and he fell in his second round match.
Another danger, No. 13 seed Mikhail Youzhny, also fell at the second. But Nadal very nearly did the same.
Robin Haase, ranked down at 150, came out with all guns blazing and nothing to lose. A big man, serving and returning big, took the first and then the third sets.
Nadal, with his back against the wall, upped his game to run away with the final two sets for the loss of just three games.
Another shock awaited Nadal on first Saturday in the form of Gulbis’s replacement, Philipp Petzschner.
Again, Nadal found himself two sets to one down and, more worryingly, needing treatment for knee and elbow. He dug deep, and repeated his comeback to win once more.
Afterwards, he was of course questioned about his knees. He was worried, but hoped his regular treatment would suffice.
It clearly did: he lost just one more set in the tournament.
How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria?
Serena’s fourth round match was one of the most anticipated in the women’s draw. It pitched her against one of only two women to break the Williams Wimbledon duopoly in the 21st century, and the only woman apart from her sister to beat her in a final on Centre Court: Maria Sharapova.
That was 2004 and the 17-year-old Russian burst onto the scene like to shot of Russian vodka.
Since those heady days, Sharapova has faced shoulder surgery, but ahead of Wimbledon, she was beginning to show her old form. She won in Strasbourg and was a finalist in the grass warm-up event in Birmingham just a fortnight earlier.
And sure enough, Sharapova came out hitting big, matching Williams blow for blow all the way to a first set tie-breaker, despite an early break against her serve.
Their difference, though, was thrown into vivid relief as they stood at nine to nine: Sharapova double faulted, Williams then aced, her 13th of the set.
From that point on, Sharapova struggled to keep up with the Williams' pace and power. It was another straight sets win for Serena in a match that saw the current champion make twice as many winners as the 2004 champion, and six times as many aces—19, since you ask.
It was a championship performance, full of guts and focus. And it was the moment at which Serena’s name looked destined for trophy.
Nadal: Built To Win
From the day he first burst onto the senior stage, Nadal has cut a distinctive figure when it comes to look.
It started with pirate pants that hid the knees from view together with vests that threw the weapons of his biceps in the face of every opponent. Perhaps a case of “hide the weakness, flaunt the strength.”
Of course, back then the storyline of the Nadal knees was yet to unfold. When the bandages began to appear, they were at least partially obscured by the pants, though they were in heavy evidence during his triumphant 2008 Wimbledon campaign.
He became world No. 1 soon after and, as the next season opened, he changed the look and adopted standard shorts and a sleeved T.
Many regretted the maturing style and many, therefore, were grateful for the new look that emerged at this year's Wimbledon, boasting newly-built knees—devoid these days of supports—and newly-bulging biceps.
No longer wary of exposing his old weakness, and happy to flaunt a replenished musculature worthy of his recaptured No. 1 status, the shorts were skilfully shaped to the figure, the shirt snugly tailored to the torso, the sleeves shortened just enough to show off those intimidating arms.
The bravado extended to the practice court, too: hence a second, supplementary, slide…
Nadal: Built To Impress
I say supplementary, others may say gratuitous.
But Nadal’s practice kit at Wimbledon, which seems to be his norm for practice everywhere, sported standard shorts—that is, shorter than the uniform donned for matches.
These shorts revealed the extent of the leg strapping taken on during the second week, which ran down the front of both thighs to just above knee level.
The T-shirt was plain enough, and clear enough. I’m Rafa: be warned!
Pretty In Pink
There are few who can match Nadal when it comes to intimidation on the tennis court, but the stunning Serena is one of them.
She’s built like a warrior queen, muscular and womanly, bold in look and strong in body language.
Her dress, and the bolero top that replaced the usual jacket or sweat-top, was crisp, classy, neat, and suited her to perfection. Beautifully tailored with pin-tuck fitting and unadorned except for fuchsia piping, she looked a picture.
Then her extrovert and confident personality was revealed. The shorts, glimpsed only as she hurtled into a smash or a serve, were also fuchsia.
A Champion To Her Fingertips
In warm-up, Williams tried to hide her light under a bushel but there were giveaways at every turn.
Earrings glinted as the sun caught their golden discs.
Nails flashed like jewels, not just because they were coated in sparkling silver but because they were long, strong, and perfectly shaped ovals. It took some imagination to work out how she gripped her racket so firmly and precisely while maintaining such an impressive manicure.
Even hidden beneath an ill-fitting cap, Serena rocked.
Rafael Nadal, The Champion
The force of nature that is Nadal came to Wimbledon with the clay Slam—three Masters and the French Open back-to-back—in his pocket and defending the title he had won against Federer in 2008.
Nadal entered this final carrying just one loss in his last 31 matches, and that loss was during his rushed attempt to squeeze in some grass-court play at Queens just days after his French triumph.
After his mid-draw scares, the real Nadal, finely honed like a sharpened knife, cut his way through opponents who, just a fortnight before, had looked like serious contenders for the title in their own right.
Robin Soderling, who had only just faced him in the last Grand Slam final, managed to take a set. Andy Murray buckled beneath the onslaught in straights.
From that moment, there looked like only one winner of Wimbledon 2010, for ahead lay the unexpected No. 12 seed, Tomas Berdych. As if the mountain the Czech had scaled already was not enough—Federer and Djokovic—the Spaniard had won their last three meetings, including on the grass at Wimbledon in 2007.
So Nadal, with a certain inevitability, went for the Berdych jugular, and took the match in a little over two hours: 6-3, 7-5, 6-4.
That makes eight Slams for this extraordinary man, and the speculation begins anew: just how many more can he win?
It seems not long ago that many experts were predicting his career was on the skids, that his knees could not survive much longer. But that was to underestimate the man from Majorca.
This time last year, he walked away from the defence of his Wimbledon title to get his body back into prime condition. He reworked his game and improved the shots that would help him keep matches shorter and faster.
He is now playing, arguably, the best tennis of his career: varied, powerful, tactically astute, and built on a body and mind that seem, for the moment at least, indestructible.
It is a fearsome prospect for the men now trailing by 4,000 points in his wake.
Serena Williams, The Champion
After her most significant battle of the tournament against Sharapova, order was quickly restored when Serena took to the court for her quarterfinal.
On paper, it looked like a tough match against the ever-improving Chinese woman, Na Li, and Serena had had to recover from that challenging fourth round match the day before.
But the younger Williams has the knack of looking all-in until the moment the ball is in play, and then the power-game that has won her three Wimbledon titles kicks in. On this occasion, for example, she hit 11 aces.
Against the unseeded and spirited giant-killer, Petra Kvitova, it was a similar story. Despite a wonderful challenge from the world No. 62, whose left-handed serve and volleying pushed Williams hard to a first set tie-break, the strength and fitness of the champion sealed the second set with relative ease.
The resistance of Williams’ final opponent, Vera Zvonareva, proved to be even less, despite also taking out three higher seeds during the tournament.
Once again, Serena showed, in her straight sets win, why she is such a formidable player, and why she effortlessly manages to stay on top of the rankings despite an extended period out with injury earlier this year.
She won her fourth Wimbledon title without dropping a set. She hit a record 89 aces (Venus was second with just 30). And she permitted Zvonareva not a single break point.
Serena has now overtaken the iconic Billie Jean King in the list of women’s Slam winners at 13 titles.
She has also equaled her sister’s 199 Grand Slam match wins, so roll on Flushing Meadows to see who comes out on top.
In this form, with so little big-match preparation but with so much desire to win—and pleasure in doing so—in her veins, it’s hard to see anyone denying the star that is Serena.
Part 1, Wimbledon 2010 Faces and Places is at
Part 2, Wimbledon 2010 Roger Federer's Story is at