Sony Ericsson Open – Women’s Final


by Pete Bodo

Here at the Sony Ericsson Open, Venus Williams has been wearing an outfit I’d describe as a candy-apple red teddy with black lace trim, and she’s seduced and ruined plenty of opponents with it. But hausfrau Kim Clijsters, who misses no chance to remind us that she’s more than comfortable in a kitchen apron, wasn’t buying Venus’s allure in the women’s final. Wielding her racket as if it were lethal feather duster, she swept Williams out of the WTA driver’s seat in a dirt-flecked match, 6-2, 6-1.

Venus made 30 unforced errors in the match, and if I didn’t feel duty-bound to ignore the injury issues that threaten to upset and undermine any post-match narrative, I might be driven to speculate about the condition of Venus’ knee, or thigh, or hip, or whatever it is this time that helps advance the ambiguity that surrounds so many matches these days. Between Justine’s hip, Svetlana’s shoulder, Serena’s knee, Venus’ whatever, an empathetic soul might be driven to dwell upon injury as the controlling factor in every WTA match ever played.

However, I am no empathetic soul. So I’m not even tempted to attribute the lousy performance Venus turned in today to the state of her wrapped left leg (of which she would only say, with characteristic coyness, “I needed the support.”) Why someone who can so heartlessly ruin the pleasant effect of that red teddy with a 15-yard wrap of tan bandage — worthy of a guy who just got his leg blown off — would be so reluctant to provide a more comprehensive answer is a question that I can’t answer.

But in the big picture, I’m sticking with the old school Australian notion, best articulated by Roy Emerson, yet another of those ex-champions who’s been cast onto the ash heap of tennis history: If you’re fit enough to play a match, you’re not injured. Period. I don’t care if your name is Williams, Roddick, Nadal or Clijsters.

Granted, there’s some wiggle room for us to sympathize with the players. A reporter who likes to hear the sound of his own voice (as if such a thing were possible!) but can’t think of anything germane to ask will often shout, So how’s that wrist holding up? It’s the press room equivalent of talking about the weather. And it would be rude for a player not to answer, right? So I’m not suggesting that Venus was milking her injury issues for sympathy; she wasn’t the one who introduced the subject. I just think injuries are a distraction that muddies the water. Everyone’s better off if we check our doctoring credentials at the press room door.

I wrote yesterday that the match would be decided by the serve at both ends of the court; if Venus served well, she could push Kim back off the baseline and keep her from commanding the rallies. It would also help if Kim had a poor serving day, enabling Venus to start rallies with a net plus if she attacked that vulnerable second serve. That might allow Venus to crack some pre-emptive winners. The dynamics in play today were similar to the ones that dominated in the Roddick v. Nadal match yesterday. But as Venus was unable to execute anywhere near the way Roddick did (and he executed brilliantly), the result was the CBS equivalent of dog poop.

Venus converted a disappointing 48 percent of her first serves, while Clijsters had a shining percentage of 67. Venus made 30 unforced errors (where did she find so many, in so short a match?), and just a third as many winners. Meanwhile, true to her conservative game plan and sensibilty, Clijsters made just 12 errors and hit only eight winners. She hardly needed that.

98230906Still, there are issues to mull in any match, no matter how awful. The intriguing one for me was how Clijsters, who’s been promoting the most aggressive kind of baseline tennis with evangelical fervor, managed to avoid getting lulled into lassitude by a combination of Venus’ poor play and Clijsters own tendency to get leaden legs and a tight arm. Nobody can go from playing persuasive, downright hostile tennis to looking like some terrified skydiver whose parachute had been blown off course and landed in a stadium packed with tennis fans quite like Kim.

But this problem is more universal than that. It’s often an issue when one of the players doesn’t show up to play, or has the kind of game that can drag down the level of even the best of opponents (just ask any recreational player about that one). Every tennis player is co-dependent with the most unlikely of people, his or her opponent. And the problem is compounded for those players, like Clijsters, who need a little stiff opposition to begin firing on all cylinders.

In other words, the bigger the lead, the more reason there was to worry about Kim pulling the ripcord and landing, blinking and trembling, in the stadium. Then we’d have to endure a carnival of errors, the way we did the other night. Don’t think that wasn’t on Kim’s mind as well. Her first words upon entering the press room were, “You just want to stay focused all the time. . . you don’t want things to happen – or like against Justine, where I let her get back into the match. That’s something I really tried to focus on.”

A little later, I asked Kim if forcing the action proved a daunting task, given that she wasn’t getting back even a modicum of push-back from her opponent.

“You know, it’s easier when things are really exciting and you’re both playing really good. Like you almost have to be dominant and to bring your best level then. But when you feel like your opponent is not giving their best tennis you just really want to try and not focus on them too much. You just really focus on yourself, on the things you’re doing well. Today, from the returns onward, I was just really making sure that I was going for the lines and just kept her under pressure from there onwards.”

By the way, sitting in on one of Kim’s press conferences is an amusing experience. She speaks as if she gets paid by the word — and who doesn’t want to make as much dough in as short a workday as possible? Her words tumble out in torrent, as if she’s being chased down some dark psychic street by the embodiment of all evil, the. . . pregnant pause!

She talks like a human machine gun, but today she didn’t need to play like one as well to take the title. Her feather duster was quite enough.

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