Serena: A ball, a racket and hope

ByPETER BODO via <a href="http://espn.go.com/" title="ESPN" class="espn_sc_byline">ESPN </a>
January 31, 2015, 9:29 AM

&#151; -- Serena Williams grew nostalgic in the victory speech following her win over Maria Sharapova in the Australian Open final Saturday. She made a reference to the hardships of her youth and declared, "I went on court with a ball, a racket and hope."

When Williams finally drops that ball, leans the racket on the chair one last time, it will be as arguably the greatest female tennis player of all time. And I say "arguably" only because accolades of that nature always are. What is clear is that Williams' hopes were realized, and beyond the wildest imaginings she might have entertained as a child, some time ago.

But why stop now? Why rest content at age 33?

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Williams' career is that she's come close to turning a familiar equation upside down. During the early portion of her career, she was shy and often uncertain in every area but the one she entered when she walked onto the court. In mid-career, she seemed somewhat adrift, not exactly sure of her identity after she was worked over on the anvil of fame. Now, in the late stage of her career, she seems to want nothing more than to play and win, and she seems completely absorbed in those ambitions. In other words, she's like a child embarking on her quest with a ball, a racket and hope.

This was Williams' sixth Australian Open title and her 19th Grand Slam singles trophy (she broke a three-way tie with Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova). She is a staggering 19-4 in Grand Slam tournament finals. This win now opens a number of new conversations: Can she win a calendar-year Grand Slam? Can she track down the only Open-era player who still owns more major titles (Steffi Graf, who has 22)? Is there anyone on the WTA horizon who can consistently -- or even periodically -- challenge her?

These are very different queries from the ones left in the wake of the 2014 Australian Open. A year ago, almost to the day, Williams absorbed a fourth-round beating inflicted by the No. 14 seed in Melbourne, Ana Ivanovic. She then went to Paris and suffered an utterly unexpected humiliation, winning just four games in a second-round clash with youngster Garbine Muguruza.

At Wimbledon, Williams went just one round further, losing to Alize Cornet. Nobody was talking about Williams catching Graf; the conversation was about Father Time catching Williams. She eluded his grasp with a win at the US Open, but some thought it might be a last hurrah, propelled by a home-court advantage. It was merely a turning of the page to a new chapter Williams began to write this week in Melbourne.

Right now, there is no woman player who poses a significant, realistic threat to the Serena Williams we saw during the second week of this major. In the final, she demonstrated that she is still quick, strong and steady enough to withstand the barrages of Sharapova at her absolute best, which is better than any other woman at her peak. Sharapova is a vastly improved player over the past two years. But even that raising of the ante was insufficient to snap this decade-long, 16-match streak of losses to Williams. It left Sharapova somewhat Yoda-esque afterward.

"I actually believe that we attract what we're ready for," she told reporters when she was asked about her awful record against Williams. "Yes, I haven't won against her many times, but if I'm getting to the stage of competing against someone like Serena, I'm doing something well."

But one thing Sharapova isn't doing well -- at least not well enough to recast the terms of the rivalry -- is serve. She is to be admired, because no player to my knowledge has rebounded from significant shoulder surgery to win a major. But that doesn't alter the fact that Sharapova's delivery is unreliable. It may have cost her Saturday's match, because her first-serve conversion rate in the critical final stages was abysmal. But let's not forget to put some of that down to FS, the widespread affliction the WTA has been living with since Williams won her first major in 1999: Fear of Serena.

By contrast, the serve won this match for Williams. She finished with 18 aces and had easily as many unreturnables. Williams' proficiency at the notch is a powerful antidote to her age, should such even be needed. You can throw the ball up and give it a good ride without having to run or react well into your 40s. As Sharapova said, "That's one of her biggest strengths, her serve. Maybe it's something that has saved her in many matches."

Williams herself went a bit further. Pondering how she won that second set with the way Sharapova was clocking those forehand winners (two of them dismissed match points), Williams said: "I started serving better in the second set because I knew if I wasn't having my groundstrokes where I wanted them to be, I knew I could serve it out. So yeah, it definitely got really interesting."

So interesting that after Sharapova escaped those two match points, and after an apparent match-ending ace was called back because it had ticked the net, Williams thought, "I am not meant to win this tournament." She fell into a panic at that moment, with conflicting urges about where to hit her next serve. She finally just tossed it up and hit it as hard as she could.

It was an ace.

Who is there left to challenge Williams now? Petra Kvitova has the serve and explosive shot-making, but she's a flawed competitor. Agnieszka Radwanska lacks the power. Halep has yet to show she can deliver regularly at significant events, and talents like Muguruza and Madison Keys, who played well against Williams in the semifinals, have yet to prove themselves.

Williams will likely take some losses this year, but not because one or more players are capable of running her to the ground. You might as well put the names of the top 100 into a hat and predict who might upset her by drawing one out now and then. It may not be a very scientific way to go about predicting, but it's honest.

No, it seems it will be Williams doing all the chasing, resuming a hunt that was postponed in 2014. The French Open will be a major obstacle, but not an insurmountable one. Her serve is even more effective on Wimbledon grass, and she's in a deep comfort zone at the US Open. Williams could equal Graf's Grand Slam title count -- and simultaneously join her as a woman who achieved a calendar-year Grand Slam -- within eight months.

It would seem a goal that could only be dreamed up by a naive child. A child with a ball, a racket and hope.

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