The recently (in)famous Barry Flatman had this to say about the person interviewing Serena Williams during the trophy ceremony on Sunday in Istanbul:
I am very sorry but this announcer interviewing Serena in Istanbul is taking sycophancy to new levels. Gush gush gush. Be professional
— Barry Flatman (@Barry_FlatmanST) October 28, 2012
Oops. Man, congratulating someone who just won four out of the six biggest trophies available for women’s tennis in 2012 and lost all of four matches all year is apparently a big problem for Barry. Which is a shame, because Serena Williams, who accomplished such a feat, deserves all the gushing available.
Just not yet. First let’s gush about Maria Sharapova.
The Russian followed up her impressive performance against her frequent tormentor Victoria Azarenka on Saturday by playing at a very high level today. She served well, played some incredible defense at times, and even dared to send more than a few return winners past Serena. The eventual champion even applauded one of them at 30-0, 4-3 in the second set. The forehand down-the-line missile was that good.
Sharapova never looked defeated, and always gave it everything she had. She fought like a madwoman. Yet all she had to show for her troubles was seven games. She didn’t create a single break point on Serena’s serve, and only got to deuce once.
The main issue for Sharapova is that she’ll always be mismatched against Serena Williams. When a top player has to play at around an “A” level merely to be competitive with another top player, that’s the definition of a tennis mismatch. Watching this final today I was reminded of one of the saddest tennis mismatches in recent history: whenever Andy Roddick played Roger Federer (Lindsay, do not click here). Whenever they met, it was always evident that Roddick had to raise his level to almost impossible standards to merely bother Federer. Likewise for Sharapova, who has to serve incredibly well (today she served 70% 1st serves and won 69% of the points played with that delivery) merely to avoid a blowout, give what was happening with her 2nd serve: Sharapova played 31 points with it, and she won only 6 of them – good for 29%.
That’s where the mismatch starts: as soon as Sharapova misses a 1st serve, her odds of winning the point go down dramatically. If Serena doesn’t pull an Agassi-esque outright winner, she will get a very aggressive return in play, pushing Sharapova away from the baseline. Once that initial blow has been struck, it’s always difficult for Sharapova to get back on the baseline and attack. She’s completely at Serena’s mercy.
The other key battleground where Sharapova gets routed is on Serena’s serve. Like Federer against Roddick, you get the sense that Serena has way too many sweet spots when Sharapova is returning her serve. Particularly when going for the corners. Great servers have accuracy as well as pace, and that’s what makes Serena’s serve so dominant, and the fact that she has the same toss for every serve (like Sampras) makes her delivery extremely hard to anticipate. Sharapova’s lack of agility also hurts her when she has to reach for those corner serves. But let’s let the numbers do the talking:
– Serena Williams lined up to serve 9 times today. 50 points were played in those service games. Maria Sharapova managed to win only 13 of those points. In case you were wondering, that’s good for 26%. Barely over one point per service game.
Still, Maria Sharapova did everything in her power to keep herself within striking distance, as evidenced by this little piece of data shown by ESPN:
At 30-all,1st game of the 2nd set, Sharapova and Serena have the same number of UFEs: 11. But, a good Serena return and it’s BP.
— Juan José (@juanjo_sports) October 28, 2012
Think about that. Sharapova and Serena played a very tight, closer-than-you-think first set, and the UFE was not only low (for them), but level. Yet Serena Williams was up a set – without having faced a break point – and was about to break Sharapova for the first time in the second set. Which she did. Sharapova managed to stay within striking distance, all the way up her last service game – where Serena unloaded on four straight winners (three of them of the return variety) – but at the same time she didn’t come close to delivering that proverbial strike.
Speaking on a personal note, following these WTA Championships has been unforgettable for two things: the epic Kerber-Azarenka match last Wednesday, and the chance to fully appreciate the greatness of Serena Williams. People talk about how great of an athlete she is, and they’re right. But she’s also the most skilled tennis player out there. Her easy power off both wings, her serve (a pure tennis stroke) and her return as well as her court coverage put her on a class of her own. Never mind the fact that she showed up to Istanbul without having played since the US Open, yet she managed to romp through the Elite 8 field without losing a set. That’s just otherworldly.
Sorry for being unprofessional, Barry, but that’s just how it is.
As a final salute to her impressive win today, the final stats for the match:
Very thorough analysis. I’d like to point to something I’ve read recently as I also always believed (and tried applying on court) that you should look closely at someone’s toss to try to anticipate the direction of someone’s serve. In Geoff Colvin’s book: Talent is Overrated p. 86 it reads: ‘researchers showed tennis players films of opponents serving at them, and used sophisticated equipment to track precisely their eye movement. Average players focused on the ball. But in the brief period between the start of the serving motion and the moment when the racket hits the ball the best players weren’t looking at the ball. The researchers then stopped the film at the moment of contact and asked the test subjects where the serve was going to go. The average players, being focused on the ball, had no idea. But the best players knew, and as a result, they could start positioning themselves to return the serve even before the serve was hit. By the time the ball landes they were already there.
I’d love to know what you think.
Thanks for this! What you say is quite interesting, and I wish I had delved into that aspect of the return of serve a little more. It’s a hobby of mine to try to predict a serve’s direction from a player’s toss. Federer on the men’s side is the most difficult to figure out. Cilic might be the easiest (Murray is not far behind). And like the quote says, it’s not about the ball at all – it’s about the trajectory, and server’s body movement to adjust to that trajectory.
I also remembered an old Sampras video I saw where they had clips of loads of his aces, and how crazy his toss was. At some point, you just had to guess.
Watching Djokovic return serve is one my favorite things in tennis. If you see his movement before the ball is being struck, he’s already locked in on where the serve is going. That, coupled with agility and good short swings makes for a great returner.
Thanks again for the thoughtful comment!
Enjoyed this very much, thanks. Liked the Fed-Roddick comparison as well – and I hadn’t realised that this, THIS sort of thing is what I’m missing in most pieces about the WTA until I saw it. 🙂
One quibble – memory says that the third of the four Serena winners in that last game was after a short rally. I remember two outright winners off Sharapova second serves, then a short rally ending with a Serena winner, then to cap it all off, that final winner off Maria’s first serve.
It’s amazing to think how shaky Serena looked in her first two matches – her first serve was way off, and she couldn’t consolidate vs Li at all, what a mess of a match that was from both players – in comparison to how overwhelmingly brilliant she was yesterday.
I’ll also remember Radwanska vs Errani as a highlight match.
Not a good seven days for Barry Flatman, really.
Glad you liked it. And thank you for the correction! I’ll go ahead and update the piece.
Agree on Serena, although I thought she played pretty well against Kerber, although she was having issues with her serve. She was way more than shanky against Li Na. I shudder at the memory of that awful, awful match.
Also agreed on Radwanska vs Errani – a sort of off-beat classic of sorts.
Barry is most definitely my muse. A source of inspiration!
Just a note to compliment you on a very thoughtful piece. Well done!
Thank you very much, Patrick! Glad you enjoyed it.
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