-- If there's anything we're learning from watching Serena Williams, it's that she is resolved to demonstrate greater gravitas after a somewhat wayward -- for her, anyway -- 2014 season. She's determined to hit a heavier ball, make herself an even more substantial favorite at every tournament she plays, and become an even more burdensome opponent for every woman she plays. That, after all, is the Serena Williams way.
After a sleepy start at the Hopman Cup, Williams has been a different player at the first Grand Slam of the year. That was evident in her first match and also in her second-round tussle with Vera Zvonareva on a day when Melbourne once again turned incalescent after an interval of unseasonably cool weather.
Zvonareva, the two-time Grand Slam finalist and two-time Australian semifinalist, has always been an enigma. For years, the 30-year-old was a weepy advertisement for the perils of investing too much emotion into those unreliable twins, forehand and backhand. But in 2010, she morphed into a top-five player with a dazzling assortment of shots and one glaring shortcoming, an unconvincing serve.
But before Zvonareva had ample chance to demonstrate what she could achieve with her newfound self-confidence, she was hit by a one-two-three punch of bad right shoulder (it required surgery in 2013), a mysterious respiratory ailment (seemingly unrelated to her former tendency to choke) and a hip injury. The net result was a shattered career that she is only now beginning to rebuild. Zvonareva was ranked No. 203 at the start of this event.
All of that added up to questions both mundane (is that forehand still the shot to attack?) and cosmic (why do I get a former Wimbledon and US Open finalist in the second round?) for the tournament's top seed. Williams had a 7-2 record against Zvonareva going in, but they hadn't slugged it out since Williams prevailed in the 2012 Olympic Games in London. (Judging by the 6-1, 6-0 score of that one, I'm assuming Williams mistook Zvonareva for Sharapova.)
Nevertheless, the prospect of playing Zvonareva, a pro with quick feet, a knack for slice and a willingness to volley, must have made Williams a little nervous. She's at that stage of her career where she can say whatever she wants without freaking out about what she might be giving away. When she was asked in a news conference if she gets less nervous early in a big tournament after having accomplished so much, she replied: "No, I think overall it stays the same. But I just am more open to talking about it."
Pin that up on the bulletin board!
Williams did feel a little jingle-jangly out there in the early going, not least because serving from one end of Rod Laver Arena on this piercing day required looking into the sun in exactly the way that once made your mom or dad scream, "Don't do that! You'll go blind!" That explains the exchange of breaks that left the score at 2-all.
Surprisingly, Zvonareva was the next one to break, for 4-3. By then, Zvonareva's strokes were nicely calibrated. She was moving well and taking exactly the right kinds of chances at the right times -- including a committed serve-and-volley point now and then.
Zvonareva held the eighth game for a 5-3 lead as the temperature climbed into the 90s (Fahrenheit). Williams looked sluggish, and her guests in the player box wore stony expressions as Zvonareva pinned Williams down and fashioned two set points. But rolling out one of her favorite party tricks, Williams dismissed one with a prodigious inside-out forehand winner and the other with a down-the-line forehand gem. Zvonareva hung in there, and she even had another set point. Williams greeted it with an unreturnable serve, and from deuce, she fired a pair of aces to dodge the threat.
Zvonareva then served for the set, and the game was the story of her life. She jumped to a 30-love lead and then sabotaged herself but good. She mangled a routine forehand and then narrowly missed with an inside-out forehand. At 30-all, she smacked a rally forehand into the net, then presented Williams with the break when, from deep center field, she lofted a defensive two-handed backhand that fell out. It was a bad breakdown at the worst of times, attributable only to nerves.
Revived and emboldened, Williams raced through the next game to take a 6-5 lead, and the rest is a tale of woe for Zvonareva. From 6-5 to 3-love in the second set, Williams won 15 of 17 points. On the whole, her serve was devastating -- as was her ability to step well inside the court and dictate. Getting a ball by her can be a lot like that game at the county fair, where all you have to do to win a teddy bear the size of Vince Wilfork is toss a pingpong ball into a goldfish bowl. An hour later, you're heading for the parking lot, broke and empty-handed.
So Williams has hurdled the second of the seven obstacles that block her path to the title and is the heavy favorite once again.