Unconditional: not subjects to conditions or limitations. Absolute.
You could almost have portrayed the Miami 2007 Final as a Greek tragedy. It had all the necessary elements: two characters (Justine Henin and Serena Williams), with opposing philosophies on life, caught up in a controversial feud, both with their own ‘fatal flaws’. Pathos towards the two; one because she wasn’t meant to get this far, not in this tournament, not after what she’s been through in recent times, the other for constantly having to prove her place, to win over the doubts who still murmur after her win in the Australian Open that it’s all a fluke, that she should just give up now. Beating Sharapova, twice, didn’t prove anything except that maybe Hingis isn’t the only haunted player by her own ghosts.
Logic said that Serena Williams should have won the Final. To go along with the metaphor of the Greek tragedy, it was written in the stars. It had to happen: Justine is not a power player, she cannot overpower a player like Serena (and yet, pray, do tell- who can?). Justine is haunted by ghosts, still. Her performance is recent weeks does not prove they no longer exist, just that she is no longer afraid of them. But they are still there, lingering at the back of her mind. Serena had that over her: with all the tragedies Serena Williams has gone through, she has not lost her mother during the month of March. Whatever demons haunting Serena, if they are any, can ‘casually’ be pushed aside during the tournament. Justine’s could not.
And that was why I was routing for Justine Henin during the match. Yes, I will be the first to admit there were other reasons behind it- for starters, a sincere dislike of Serena Williams and her style of play, the fact that Justine, for all her flaws, does play “pretty” tennis, and, because I’m actually incredibly superficial, Justine speaks French fluently. Say what you want, at the end of the day you tend to side with your own. But there was something else. As I said before, Justine Henin does not like Miami. “Too many bad memories,” she confessed at her press conference after her second round win. Her mother died when Justine was 12, during the month of March, because of that you can’t really blame her for never having gotten past the ¼ Final. Bad memories indeed.
So when she walked onto that court what I felt first and foremost was an element of pride. Of deep, sincere pride. I was honestly proud of her, proud that she didn’t let those ghosts bother her, that she did it as much for herself as she did for her mother. It was in a previous round that she glanced up to the sky after she won. She didn’t say anything but the message was clear to all who were watching: she was winning for her mother. With that in mind, I wanted her to win. Justine Henin may have been prone to selfish actions in the past; the Final was not one of them. The player who was once so fragile during the tournament was still vulnerable, of that there was no doubt. But at least now she wasn’t so afraid of those ghosts.
But since I’ve brought up Justine’s past I feel I ought to talk about Serena, now, too. As stated before, I was always going to be for Justine. But I still acknowledge that Serena Williams has, at the very least, accomplished something. Her comeback may not have the magical element that Hingis’ did, and maybe that why I, along with so many others, fail to be won over by her. Not because she’s not convincing, because she is, but because I’m not convinced. Hingis rose from nothing, Hingis came back from the cold. Serena may not have been amongst the elites in the past few years but at least she was there. She was still playing. Not as well, and it’s only in recent months she’s found her form again, but she was still playing, still competing.
If in theory I should support Williams, that I don’t is merely down to something called ‘wengerism’ (perfect shot from the perfect angle with the perfect player and the perfect weather conditions and perfect line calling). I’m the daughter of a UN interpreter, which basically means I’m used to arrogance being associated with education and talent. Serena Williams have an education, is arrogant because she’s extremely talented. But that is the problem. She’s talented at hitting the ball- hard. Accurate it may be, but she still is undeniably a baseline hitter. Justine Henin, whilst she may lack arrogance (in comparison with other players, she’s even remotely modest) and education, “got skillz”. Serve and volley, drop shots, one-handed backhands across court, the girl can do them. More importantly she can handle them well. Serena Williams offers entertainment; Justine Henin offers intrigue, that ‘je ne sais quoi’ element that draws you in.
The entire match was that of contrasts. From the moment they stepped onto court you could see the difference between the two. Serena Williams strutted onto the court, completely confident to the point of being arrogant. Why Martina Hingis’ arrogance is charming and Serena Williams’ is irritating is beyond me, but then again there are something you learn not to question. But arrogance it was. She even had huge earrings with her name in them. I’m all for showing the world you like yourself, but come on girl, that really was taking things too far.
Justine Henin, by contrast, is far more discreet. She rarely brims with confidence; it is an aspect I like about her. She’s extremely talented, she knows it, but unlike most of that caliber (and even those beneath her), she doesn’t flaunt it. Save for the exceptional “allez!” you don’t actually hear her that much on the court. Serena Williams, amongst others, seems to be intent on making her presence known.
Yet in the first set it was Justine Henin who made herself known. That being said, I doubt even the diehard Justine fans really expected her to win 6-0. That she did shows two things. First of all, she’s a way smarter player- Serena Williams may hit the ball extremely accurately, but she also hits it hard. Justine played tennis. Drops shots, volleys, aces. She did it. She did it with such skill, such intuition. There are few players who can match her back-hand (Mauresmo being the main contender), and I have to say- wow. Just, wow. She was absolutely amazing during that first set, taking it 6-0.
There are a few things to point out during that first match, and it has a lot to do with their attitudes to tennis. Justine loves tennis. She loves playing tennis. Serena Williams may love the sport, what she loves first and foremost is winning, and the fame which comes along with it. Also, Justine Henin is incredibly fit (Mauresmo being fitter?). Serena Williams tried hitting the balls, Henin countered with that shot from that angle. So she used angles, making her run after the balls. You realize fully Henin’s fitness when she’s running them down: it honestly doesn’t bother it.
As Justine Henin got further and further into the lead, Serena got more and more frustrated. And making more and more mistakes. You could see in the stats at the end: Justine Henin had something along the lines of 5 unforced errors. I failed to note down Serena Williams, so do forgive me. Also, when Justine raised her hand during the first set when Williams was about to serve, did anyone else expect Serena to bluntly ignore her and serve anyway? Not that it mattered, because Henin still won. 6-0.
I missed the exact moment Serena Williams broke her racquet.
Second set, Serena Williams realized losing a set 6-0 “kinda hurts”, upped her game. For most of that set, it was played like an actual final. Justine had match points, lost them. And the following event changed the match completely: Justine slipped, injured her knee. She lost her confidence, and the ghosts of March came roaring back. That injury, for me, disrupted an otherwise reasonable balance.
Because after that Justine lost her rhythm. It was an open game until then. But suddenly the points became shorter, the rallies less intriguing, her moves more… jerky, almost. And Serena Williams took advantage, winning the second set 7-5 and racing to a 3-0 lead in the third.
I thought it was over then. I honestly believed, when Justine was lying on the floor having fallen again on her bad knee, that it was over. Serena Williams was going to win 6-0. But then something happened. Justine fought back. She dug deep and she found something to hold onto, something to fight for. And slowly but surely Justine came back, to 3-3. Yet by then, the damage had already been done, and she just couldn’t fight anymore, not like that, not against a player as physical as Serena Williams. Appropriately Serena Williams won the final set 6-3.
But a few things which are semi-related to the match:
1. Justine Henin’s injury raised some interesting questions, at least for me. I am not convinced that Serena Williams still would have won that second set if Justine hadn’t fallen, if she hadn’t been so shaken up afterwards. For the simple reason Serena Williams wasn’t outplaying Justine as much as she was outhitting her. Could Serena have still won if Justine was moving as effortlessly as she was in the first set? If Serena Williams had been playing the better tennis, I’d be the first one saying ‘Serena was the better player’. Overpowering someone does not mean you have more skill, just that you have more power. In other words, the ever so popular ‘brains vs brawns’ debate.
2. The final was as much about the comeback of Serena Williams as it was about Justine Henin’s personal battle with “the month of March”. One won the title, the other made the first steps in laying those ghosts to rest. Serena Williams may have won, but for me Justine Henin was the real winner that night, if only because in theory she wasn’t expected to make it that far.
3. Finally, and I would have said this even if Justine Henin had won: if Serena Williams wants to convince the doubters, i.e. people like me, that her tennis comeback isn’t a joke, she should try actually acting like a tennis player. And that means playing tournaments she doesn’t want to. Serena Williams has played, unless I’m mistaken: the Gold Coast, the Australian Open, and Miami. That means she hasn’t played competitive tennis since January. Granted, there was the excuse she was “injured”. Directly after the Australian Open, I would have believed her. But between the AO and Miami there were plenty of other tournaments. Selfishly, it’s not fair on the other players who do put up with the demanding schedule. Why should Serena Williams be allowed to boycott tournaments because she’s so-called “injured”? All players have tournaments they would rather not play. Mauresmo didn’t want to go to Dubaï and still did. Justine Henin, for obvious reasons, would like to avoid Miami. Martina Hingis and Roland Garros is a long and complicated love affair. Those players, at least, try to keep up with the schedule. They take injuries and exhaustion and jet-lag as part of the game. Serena Williams instead decided to pick the tournaments she’s the favorite at. If it’s isn’t illegal, it’s certainly immoral.
This is my conclusion of the match: congratulations for the win, Serena Williams, yet I am still not convinced your comeback is for real. If she really wants to be taken seriously as a tennis player, she can’t just pick the tournaments she wants to play. She has to play others. And congratulations for Justine, who finally is starting to move on from the “Month of March” syndrome. And who proved that maybe Serena Williams isn’t quite as unbeatable as she would like to believe she is.
Unconditional: not subjects to conditions or limitations. Absolute.