Concrete Elbow by Steve Tignor - Fortune Favors the Good
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Fortune Favors the Good 12/18/2009 - 2:31 PM

In my last post I stated that 2009 was a good year for tennis matches. Unfortunately, I realize now that I need to revise that assertion: It was a good year for men’s tennis matches. From a competitive standpoint, the women disappointed. Dinara Safina came up lame in both the Aussie and French finals, the Williams sisters gave us a briefly compelling but ultimately unmemorable Wimbledon final, and Caroline Wozniacki couldn’t quite make herself into a threat to Kim Clijsters at the U.S. Open.

That leaves us with just one WTA match that combined the requisite drama and excellence to qualify as a classic: the Wimbledon semifinal between Serena Williams and Elena Dementieva, won by Williams 6-7 (4), 7-5, 8-6. Above are a pair of highlight clips that cover much of the second and third sets. I apologize for the irritatingly excitable announcers—NBC pulled all the videos of its broadcast. But there’s no way to ruin this one. The tension builds right to the final point.

—I normally think of Serena as being a fierce competitor rather than an elegant one. Maybe it’s the traditional clothes or the Wimbledon setting, but from the start her strokes and movement seem smoother and more polished. Her extension through her forehand in the first few rallies shown is exemplary. She also seems to be hitting it with more topspin than usual, and with a concerted effort to pin Dementieva deep in the court. You can see that Serena is in a no-nonsense mood.

—Dementieva is counterpunching for the most part. Her game has always seemed to me to be the tennis equivalent of a blind person who has, in order to survive, developed her other senses to their maximum. Dementieva’s blind spot—her serve—has forced her to become just a shade quicker along the baseline, make her strokes a little more compact, and tighten up her reaction time. She’s had to deal with fending off big returns her whole career, which helps her come in prepared for Serena’s rockets. Sometimes Dementieva looks more like a hockey goalie out there than a tennis player.

—Hawkeye was cruel to the Russian in this match. The machine made two calls against her by the barest of margins.

—There are few Hall-of-Famers who are as willing as Serena Williams to do anything to stay in a point the way she is. If she’s pushed to her right, she’s not embarrassed to go to the hack slice forehand and pop it straight up in the air, if that’s what it takes to get the ball over the net.

—Dementieva certainly had her chances. She blew an open-court backhand in the last game of the second set that I believe would have gotten her to a tiebreaker. But the most telling moment for me comes when she goes up a break in the third, 3-1. Immediately, she drills two very makeable forehands into the net. Dementieva likes pace; the more time she has, the nervous she can get, especially in this situation against Serena. Also, does Dementieva not move forward that well? On one point she's unable to take advantage of a weak Williams return because she can’t get there in time.

—Dementieva has match point at 5-4 in the third. Serena hits a mediocre serve and Dementieva hits a solid backhand return. You think it will be a typical rally, but Serena decides to take the initiative right away. She doesn’t do anything spectacular, but she does force Dementieva to come up with a backhand pass. The Russian mistakenly chooses to go crosscourt, where Serena is waiting. Fortune in tennis still favors the brave. And the good.

—This match reaches its peak with Serena serving at 5-6 in the third. There's lots of desperate hitting and desperate emotion: Dementieva is left down for the count after one point, and Serena gets right in her face on another. Most crucial, Serena hits two aces to rescue herself. In the next game, her ground strokes land on the baseline multiple times, including twice on the final point. Not surprisingly, she breaks serve. Fortune favors the brave, the good, and the fortunate.

—For such a tense match, it ends in an odd way. You rarely see a player miss the last ball of a tight contest by going for winner and sending the ball wide. It’s easier to gauge the sideline and find the right margin for error than it is to gauge the baseline or the net—with the match on the line, why aim so close to the sideline? But Dementieva does just that and strokes the last ball wide. It's almost as if part of her has decided that destiny is against her on this day, at this event, against this opponent.

—With Dementieva serving as well as she ever has, there was almost nothing to separate these two players. Every set was close, every game hard fought. Why did Serena win? There’s her serve, of course, and her power, and her speed. But what comes to my mind is the way she reacts to her missed shots, as compared to the way her opponent reacts.

Serena can’t believe she can miss. She can’t believe she can lose. Dementieva, as much as the thought upsets her, can.


Posted by nikre 12/18/2009 at 02:56 PM

A great recap...although, I can't help but add it was worthy of a higher ranking in the Top 10 Matches of 2009! Didn't expect this that soon!

Posted by Karen 12/18/2009 at 04:41 PM

I agree, this really should have been No. 1 or No. 2 on the list. It was an exciting match that basically had my whole office crowded around my computer screen at work. It was a nailbiter and love her or hate her, you have to beat Serena at tennis. She is not laying down. I agree with Steve also that when Serena misses, she is like how the dickens did I miss that, whilst for Dementieva it is more like well I knew that was going to happen.

Posted by Master Ace 12/18/2009 at 04:56 PM

This match should have been higher than 6. Now, I believe the Top 5 are all ATP matches with a possible exception of Serena/Kim USO SF because I thought this was the WTA match of the year.

Wonder what 5 matches were better than the AO final:

My guesses:
Roger/Andy R - Wimbledon F
Rafael/Fernando V - Australian Open SF
Rafael/Novak - Madrid SF
Rafael/Robin - French Open R16
Roger/Juan Martin - United States Open F
Serena/Kim - United States Open SF

Steve's Recap
10 - Melanie Oudin vs Maria Sharapova - United States Open R32
9 - Taylor Dent vs Ivan Navarro - United States Open R64
8 - Radek Stepanek vs Ivo Karlovic - Davis Cup SF
7 - Rafael Nadal vs Roger Federer - Australian Open F
6 - Serena Williams vs Elena Dementieva - Wimbledon SF

Posted by Master Ace 12/18/2009 at 05:21 PM

"She doesn’t do anything spectacular, but she does force Dementieva to come up with a backhand pass. The Russian mistakenly chooses to go crosscourt, where Serena is waiting"

Wonder did that BH DTL late in the second set that Elena sailed wide played a role on where she was going to play her match point. Serena may have thought so as she came forward but the game that lost the match was when Elena was up 3-1 but had a loose game trying to consolidate the break and Serena capitalized to win the match.

Posted by Stewart 12/18/2009 at 05:59 PM

I have to agree with the other posters. This was obviously the best women's match of the year, and should have been in the top 5 at least, even with there being more memorable men's matches than women's ones this year.

Good analysis though.

Guess my hail mary call for the Dokic/Kleybanova match to appear will go unheard. :D

Top 3 matches I think are pretty obvious - Nadal/Verdasco AO semi, Fed/Roddick Wimby final, Nadal/Djokovic Madrid semi. 4th would definitely be Fed/Delpo USO final, 5th I'm guessing is Soderling knocking off Nadal FO 4th round?

Posted by Raghu 12/18/2009 at 07:36 PM

James Martin write a column which is his point of view and does not even have the sense to leave 'comments' column open.
Any ways, here is my two cents:
Sports cannot be judged based on just how much physical effort one puts in to win a tournament. If that is the case, Roger is rightly behind Lance.
But I agree with you on remaining comments
Roger should have rightly been with winner of the draw.

Judges should be made to come up with their justification of choosing winners.


Posted by Bibi 12/18/2009 at 08:07 PM

Too good Steve

Posted by rafadoc 12/18/2009 at 08:36 PM

This match does show how much mental disposition or "belief" in oneself has to do with outcomes. I totally agree with your last line Steve.

I have seen Elena trust her game a bit more when she won the Gold Medal against Dinara. You could see it build as the match went on. But, this match was against Serena who will challenge your confidence over and over and show you her own confidence level. It can be quite intimidating.

Great choice Steve. I continue to enjoy this series.

Posted by Red⁺ = Legacy Solidified 12/18/2009 at 09:17 PM

Top 5 choice this one.
Enjoyable read Steve.

Posted by Mr. T. 12/18/2009 at 09:22 PM

Steve - Excellent analysis. This had the makings of a tight match. If my memory serves me right, Dementieva had beaten Serena the last time they played each other previous to this match. But this was a major semi and you had to give the edge to Serena if it was tight, which it was. On Dementieva's match point, Serena clipped the net on her volley - Elena was that close to winning - that probably got into her mind. The match was decided in each players' head as you concluded at the end of your blog. This series is bringing back some great matches and memories.

Posted by othersideoftennis 12/18/2009 at 09:38 PM

I agree this was one of the top five matches of the year. And why do I not find it surprizing that Serena in one of the five matches? I believe Serena has not really gotten her respect she deserve for excellent strokes and mind on the court. It is always written about her power. It is impossible to win the champions she has won with only power.It was a great match because Dementieva was a worthy oppenent. Yes the match could have gone anyway but in the end I believe it was Serena's serve. All through the above youtube highlights you see one constant.......that "Booming ASS SERVE" backed up with hard deep ground strokes, net play and being Champion she was not to be denied. Serena is great for tennis. Her and Roger are wonder embassadors for the sport. I cannot wait for the AO :.)

Posted by Chany 12/19/2009 at 08:36 AM

Steve - thanks so much for finding the footage. It was awesome to see Serena at her best against a worthy opponent. I can't wait for OZ either!

Posted by Ruth 12/19/2009 at 11:13 AM

This post should be required reading for those dear souls who keep insisting that, even absent the footfault call and the penalty point for Serena's bad reaction to the call, Clijsters would definitely have won that infamous USO 2009 match. Yeah, right. :)

That wonderful Elena-Serena Wimby match reminded me of so many of those Serena-Capriati battles that used to light up the tennis scene for me.

Posted by ok 12/19/2009 at 03:21 PM

A great contest! well fought by both ladies

Posted by Account Deleted 12/19/2009 at 06:11 PM

I agree this match should have been higher on the list; it was the best WTA match of the year. (For sure, as Melanie Oudin might say.) As usual though your analysis and writing are terrific. Love the description of Serena as being in a "no-nonsense mood" and the observation that Dementieva's game is "the tennis equivalent of a blind person who has, in order to survive, developed her other senses to their maximum."

Posted by albert 12/20/2009 at 06:32 AM

Hi Steve,
Long time lurker here, enjoyed many of your articles. I'd just like to quibble with the point you're making at the end of this article.

Due to Serena and Dementieva's past reputations, I know it would be easy to rationalize the outcome of such a close match as being a result of their difference in mental strength (as you partially did here). I'd prefer to think of it in terms of more observable factors, e.g. the serve and the power as you mentioned. I'm not denying mental strength as a factor in deciding a match, I just think that especially for us non-experts in psychology, it's difficult to tell what the players' are thinking, and our speculations about the players' mental states are ultimately just speculations. For some matches it would be possible to make a clear-cut case for (e.g.) mental collapse, but "the mental factor" could be in danger of becoming a convenient catch-all for all things we can't explain by other means.

Posted by Babe 12/20/2009 at 12:11 PM

Fantastic Match--simply fantastic! Easily the match of the year on either side--aside from that Wimbledon's men's final---that one seemed like it would go on forever! But that semi was just a tremendous match.

Posted by Ragnar 12/20/2009 at 09:59 PM

I watched that match on TV, and loved it.. Go Elena..

Posted by david 12/22/2009 at 02:05 AM

Brilliant line, this: "Her game has always seemed to me to be the tennis equivalent of a blind person who has, in order to survive, developed her other senses to their maximum"

Posted by Jacque 01/09/2010 at 09:10 AM

excellent again steve. You make me hope for better things in sports journalism. Your analysis is sublime as usual. I do agree with everyone that this should be top 5 at least. Also, the previous match against Azarenka was equally compelling, I think.

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