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Sunday, 10 July 2016 10:06 AM BST
Serena's serve: The most important shot in tennis history
Serena re-asserts her authority with a familiar weapon READ MORE

“You give a lot of people hope that they could do something that’s impossible,” a downcast Serena Williams said in a scene from her recent documentary, Serena. “But hell, I couldn’t do it either.”

It was the fall of 2015, and Serena was still reeling from her loss in the US Open semi-finals to Roberta Vinci. She had, she said, been in a “dark” place since the defeat, which had stopped her two wins short of becoming the first winner of a calendar-year Grand Slam since 1988.

“This is the biggest moment of my career,” Serena said, “and I didn’t get it. I’ve never been in this position, so close to having something and losing it, or not getting it.”

Unfortunately for Serena, she would be in that position two more times in 2016. The woman who had won 21 of her first 25 Grand Slam finals lost two in a row, at the Australian Open and French Open. Both times it came at the hands of an opponent - Angelique Kerber in Melbourne and Garbine Muguruza in Paris - who had never won a major before.

Some of us wondered: Had Vinci, a 5’4” Italian finesse artist, permanently shaken the confidence of the best female tennis player of this century? On Saturday in the Wimbledon final, Serena gave us our answer, and made us wonder how we ever could have asked the question in the first place. She avenged her Australian Open loss to Kerber with a 7-5, 6-3 win in the Wimbledon final. It was Serena’s seventh title at the All England Club and 22nd major title, which tied her with Steffi Graf for second on the all-time list, two behind Margaret Court.

How did Serena pull herself out of that dark place? With a familiar weapon and an unfamiliar attitude.

The weapon, of course, was her serve. As has been said many times, it’s the most important shot in tennis history. Watching Serena throw down thunderous strikes with it today, though, I realised something else that’s remarkable about this singular stroke: Unlike the most effective men’s serves - Ivo Karlovic’s and John Isner’s - Serena’s isn’t the product of height (Isner and Karlovic are 6’9 and 6’10, respectively; she’s listed at 5’9” and may be an inch taller). It’s the product of athleticism, technique, and strength of will.

But it has rarely, if ever, been more important - more buoying for her, more demoralising for her opponent - than it was against Kerber. Serena hit 13 aces and won 88 percent of points on her first serve. When she missed her first one and had to a second ball, that percentage dropped all the way to 39 percent.

By comparison, Kerber won 59 percent of points on her own first serve, and 68 percent on her second. Once she got herself into a rally, Kerber, who made just nine unforced errors, was holding her own. Hence the importance, for Serena, of ending the rallies before they could begin.

Afterward, Kerber was asked what the difference was between this match and their Aussie Open final.

“Today, just her serve was much better,” Kerber said. “On grass, the serve is also a little bit strange, because it’s tough to return it.”

“I had one break point and I couldn’t do nothing.”

But if Serena’s serving dominance wasn’t news to anyone, her mindset over the course of this fortnight was. The key was, as the saying goes, not to let the perfect be the enemy of the (very) good.

“I’ve definitely had some sleepless nights,” Serena said of her recent near-misses. “...I had to start focusing on the positives and not focusing on that one loss per tournament, which really isn’t bad.”

Of her loss to Vinci at the Open, Serena said she wanted to show that, “No, that’s not going to shake me, you’re not going to break me.”

But that loss, which kept Serena from achieving tennis’s version of perfection - the calendar-year Slam - also made her realise that “you can’t win everything” and “I’m not going to be perfect.”

And that’s how Serena played during the second week at Wimbledon. Against Svetlana Kuznetsova, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, and Kerber, Serena absorbed their best shots, accepted that she wasn’t going to blow them off the court, and trusted that she had the game to beat them in the end. She was right: She didn’t drop a set to any of them.

On Saturday, after saying that Serena’s serve is the greatest weapon in tennis history, McEnroe speculated that her will to win was a close second. You could see that will in action at 4-3 in the second set of the final. Serena walked to the sideline with a look of tunnel-vision determination; it was, in her mind, winning time. I thought Kerber’s time was up, and maybe Kerber herself did as well.

There has been talk in recent years that Serena is playing in an era of less-than-stellar competition. And it’s true that she is head and shoulders, game-wise, above the rest of her peers. But that fact brings its own challenges. The pressure of being expected to win every time you play can be more difficult to deal with than any opponent. Every match for Serena is a battle not just with the other player, but with the knowledge that the result resides squarely on her racquet. Serena found a way to deal with that knowledge at Wimbledon - by not trying to do the impossible.

74
Aces by Serena at Wimbledon (Vesnina is second on 31)

When she walked off the court at 4-3 in the second set, Serena had conquered her own doubts; she had succeeded in this situation so many times in the past that there was no need to worry about failure anymore. Now all she needed to do was conquer Kerber.

For that, Serena had the perfect weapon. In the final game, she moved quickly from one point to the next, and fired three service winners to reach 40-0. After one more simple forehand volley, she fell to the court with joy and relief - she was out of that dark place at last. Seven Wimbledon and 22 major titles is as close to perfect as anyone needs to be.