The Australian Open is now just days away. Here, Toby Reiner looks back at some of the great performances in the women’s singles at Melbourne Park. As with the men’s list, these matches are in chronological order.
That Graf won the “Golden Slam” in 1988, the year in which tennis made its full return to the Olympics after a 64-year absence (there was a demonstration event for young players at Los Angeles in 1984), is well known. That she also won what was later to be dubbed the “Serena Slam” – i.e. all four major events in a row, but not in a calendar year – later in her career is less widely remembered, but no less true for that. The reason for that is obvious: the second streak of four-in-a-row occurred in the months immediately following the stabbing of her great rival Monica Seles in Hamburg on 30 April 1993, with Graf picking up Roland Garros, Wimbledon, and the US Open in 1993, despite not playing particularly well at any of those events, and following up with the Australian Open in 1994.
There is no doubt that Graf saved the best for last. Rebound ace wasn’t her favorite surface: she “only” won the Australian Open four times, whereas she won each other Slam at least five times, in large part because her slice backhand was less effective on such a high-bouncing surface than on faster surfaces and even than on clay, where the ball could dig into the topsoil. Her opponent in the final, Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario, wasn’t Seles, who had won the tournament three years in a row prior to 1994, but she was Graf’s major rival on the circuit in the absence of Seles, and had picked up some important victories over Graf in the past. Besides a famous victory in the final of Roland Garros in 1989 in which Sanchez-Vicario stopped Graf from making a run at a second straight Slam, she had also beaten her in the semi-finals in 1991, by the lopsided score of 6-0 6-2, in the quarter-finals of the US Open in 1992, and in the final of that same tournament in Hamburg in which Seles was stabbed. She didn’t go into the final as favorite, but after thrashing Gabriela Sabatini in the semis, Sanchez-Vicario must have thought she had a fighting chance.
Not this time, though. With her powerful forehand relentless, Graf kept Sanchez-Vicario on the back foot throughout, didn’t allow her relentless retrieving to get into her head, and ended up winning by the same score as Sanchez-Vicario had in Paris in 1991. And so it was that Graf had won four Slams in a row for the second time in her career.
Incidentally, this result set the pattern for much of the remainder of their careers. Although Sanchez-Vicario was to score a surprise come-from-behind victory in the 1994 US Open final, winning 1-6 7-6 6-4 after a first set that was barely closer than the Australian match, Graf beat the Spaniard in the final of both Roland Garros and Wimbledon in both 1995 and 1996, and finished 28-8 ahead in the rivalry.
Poor Arantxa. One year on from the mauling at Graf’s hands, she came into the final as top seed after a 1994 in which she picked up both the Roland Garros and US Open titles, and ended up doing barely any better than she had a year before against an opponent with a forehand perhaps even more powerful, if somewhat less consistent, than Graf’s. Mary Pierce was one of the most unpredictable figures in women’s tennis: sublime on occasion, frequently mediocre, and at times making the transition in just a couple of days. After demolishing Graf 6-2 6-2 in the semi-finals of Roland Garros 1994 to complete a run to the final for the loss of just 10 games, Pierce lost 6-4 6-4 against Sanchez-Vicario in wet and slow conditions that took the edge off her game. So, even another emphatic run to the final in Melbourne (on this occasion, Pierce lost 25 games in six rounds), did not mean that her supporters could rest assured of the outcome given that she was facing the same opponent against whom she came unstuck in Paris.
This time, though, Pierce made no mistake, staying on top of her opponent from the start and picking up her first Slam title without once being taken to 5-5 in a set. It seemed as though Pierce heralded a new era in women’s tennis, because she could harness almost as much power off her backhand side as off her forehand (unlike Graf), and didn’t have her reach limited by playing with two hands on her forehand (as Seles did). However, inconsistency was to plague Pierce throughout a career lasting more than a decade. She dropped off the scene almost entirely in 1996, before making a run to the final in Australia in 1997, remained there or thereabouts for a few years that culminated in her second Slam title at Roland Garros in 2000, but then had several unsuccessful years prior to a late renaissance in 2005, when she was runner-up to Justine Henin at Roland Garros and to Kim Clijsters at the US Open. Still, Lindsay Davenport and the Williams sisters were to popularize the Pierce style of mighty hitting off both wings and use it to dominate women’s tennis for much of the last 15 years.
Lindsay Davenport had perhaps the best combination of technique and power off the ground of any woman in the nearly three decades that I’ve followed tennis. She combined hitting the ball as cleanly as the likes of Hingis with whacking it as hard as the Williams sisters. Had she been just a little shorter, and so better able to cover the court and get down for low balls, she might have won a bunch more Slam titles than the three she did take home. (Being more resilient would have helped, too). Still, when she was able to get in control of a point, Davenport was extremely hard to beat. Although she found it pretty tough to beat Serena Williams or Maria Sharapova, (the head to head against both Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin also got away from her after the younger women hit their stride), Davenport was able to inflict the occasional bruising defeat on them, as the 6-0 6-0 victory against Sharapova in Indian Wells in 2005 and the 6-4 6-2 win against Serena in the US Open quarter-finals in 2000 show.
Davenport’s flawless technique but ropy movement probably explain why she “only” won three Slams but also why, when she did win one, she never once lost a set en route to that title. The 2000 Australian Open was her last Grand Slam title, but what a way to go out! From start to finish, Davenport dominated. Through the first five rounds, her closest set was 7-5. In the semis, a resurgent Jennifer Capriati pushed her to a second set tiebreak, but was ultimately thrust aside. In the final, Davenport faced her long-term rival, Martina Hingis, who had won the three previous editions of the tournament, and in 1999 regained the #1 spot that Davenport had stolen from her in 1998. Hingis had also come through a difficult draw to reach the final without dropping a set, beating a young Justine Henin in round two, and coming through Conchita Martinez and Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario in the quarter-finals and semi-finals.
At the outset of the final, Davenport was well on top, with her superior power a crucial factor on the fast courts of that year’s Australian Open. Hingis didn’t hit the ball hard and her lack of power might have been expected to be a problem on a fast court, but she took the ball exceptionally early, and that helped her to some extent compensate. Digging deep in the second set, Hingis pushed Davenport all the way, but in her cleanest display of hitting Down Under, Davenport ended up victorious, and so added the Australian Open title to her 1998 US Open and her 1999 Wimbledon.
Tennis fans are perhaps more obsessed with discussion questions of greatness than are fans of any other sport. One of the major debates concerns Serena’s status in the game. My own view on this is that we need to draw a sharp distinction between “greatest” (she who has the most accomplishments) and “best” (she who produced the highest level on at least a repeated basis, if not a consistent one). I would then say that Serena has some way to go to become the greatest of all time, but that she is clearly the best of all time. True, as the commentators during the 2010 Australian Open final pointed out, Justine Henin had more solid technique on her groundstrokes. But there’s more to a complete tennis player than first-rate technique. Serena’s extra power, her astonishing prowess on both first- and second-serve, her legendary fighting spirit, and her court coverage give her a slight edge over Henin, and clearly raise her above the greats of previous generations.
One of the things that makes Serena so good is her ability to switch on her highest level during a tournament. Coming into the Australian Open in 2007, she was ranked only 81 after a year in which she barely competed, and was clearly lacking in fitness and match practice. In the warm-up tournament in Hobart the week before the tournament, she lost to Sybille Bammer, then ranked #56, after tiring badly in the third set. Although we all knew she would raise her level for the main event, and it was therefore no surprise that she made it through the first two rounds fairly easily, there were many who expected her to lose against Nadia Petrova, the #5 seed, in the 3rd round, who had recovered from the injuries that plagued her in the middle of 2006 and was thought of as a dark horse for the title. Petrova swept through the opening set 6-1, but Serena battled through a tumultuous second set, and eventually came through 1-6 7-5 6-3. Raising her game for the 4th round, she beat Jelena Jankovic, someone who has consistently troubled Serena, fairly easily, but in the quarter-finals barely beat Shahar Peer in oppressive heat, eventually winning 3-6 6-2 8-6. Serena then edged out Nicole Vaidisova, who was to become one of the great underachievers in women’s tennis, 7-6 6-4 in the semi-finals. Going into the final, then, it was clear that she had worked her way into some sort of form, but she also seemed some way off her very best. True, the same might have been said of Sharapova, whose easy semi-final win over Kim Clijsters masked an error-ridden display, but the final was widely expected to be a tight affair, perhaps emulating their classic semi-final of 2005, which Serena won 2-6 7-5 8-6.
Then again, prior to the 2007 final, we didn’t know how devastating Serena could be against Sharapova. Then, the head to head between them was 2-2, with Sharapova beating Serena easily in the 2004 Wimbledon final and more narrowly in the 2004 Tour Championships, before the aforementioned 2005 Australian Open semi-final, in which, it must be said, Maria kind of choked (Serena’s battling spirit must take some of the credit, too, of course). Moreover, Sharapova is more than six and a half years younger than Williams. Now, the head to head between them is 15-2 in Serena’s favor, and Sharapova hasn’t beaten her since that 2004 Tour Championships match. In the last 13 matches, she has only even won two sets! Last week, in Brisbane, she narrowly failed to make it a third, losing a second set tiebreak 9-7 in a 6-2 7-6 defeat. And it was the 2007 Australian Open final that started it all. Maria didn’t play well, but Serena was devastating, hitting winner after winner, and looking in far better shape than she had at the start of the tournament. We knew she could play her way into form in a tournament, but that she could play her way into fitness was more surprising. What that match made clear, and the future of the rivalry has shown, is that although Sharapova can almost match Williams for power off the baseline and for her refusal to accept defeat, her height and her footwork are terrible Achilles’ heals, with Serena able to exploit Sharapova’s relative lack of mobility.
Serena is now 32, but she shows few signs of slowing down. (I personally think that she’s not quite as explosive as she was back in 2002 or 2003, but she’s clearly more consistent). I suppose that, if Williams keeps playing deep into her 30s, Sharapova will eventually beat her again. There might even come a time when Maria gets the edge and strings a few wins together. But if that happens when Serena is 35, it will be a somewhat hollow victory, bearing in mind that Sharapova won’t even turn 30 until more than six months after Williams turns 35.
One thing that can’t be denied about Maria Sharapova is that her fighting spirit is the equal, not just of Serena Williams, but of almost anyone who has ever played tennis at an elite level. The most impressive thing about how she handled the thrashing Serena gave her in 2007 was how she used it to motivate herself for the 2008 tournament. This was clearly the most impressive fortnight of Maria’s tennis life and the most dominating of her four Grand Slam title runs. At Wimbledon 2004, she played a great final, but she’d struggled past Ai Sugiyama and Lindsay Davenport in the two preceding rounds. At the US Open 2006, she again raised her game magnificently to surprise Henin in the final, but again her previous two performances, against Tatiana Golovin and Amelie Mauresmo, were more mixed. (Admittedly, against Mauresmo, the world #1 and champion of both the Australian Open and Wimbledon, Sharapova won two 6-0 sets, but in between them, she dropped a 4-6 second set). At Roland Garros in 2012, Sharapova dropped just one set (in the 4th round, against Klara Zakopalova) and was never taken to 5-5 in any other set (in fact, only Zakopalova took more than three games in a set off her, but did so twice). Yet, that time, Sharapova only played one top 20 opponent, #4 Petra Kvitova in the semis, and, throughout 2012, Kvitova was not on good form.
At the Australian Open 2008, Maria really came to play, and dominated the entire field, including the then dominant #1, Henin. We knew, of course, that Maria matched up better against Henin than it now appears she does against Serena Williams: the aforementioned 6-4 6-4 victory in the 2006 US Open showed that. Still, going into 2008, Henin appeared to be at the height of her powers, and it looked likely that she, and not Serena, would end up the greatest player of the generation. Slightly more than eight months younger than Williams, Henin had closed the gap in Slam titles to 8-7, had finished the year as #1 three times (in 2003, 2006, and 2007) to Serena’s one (2002), and had a 39-28 lead in overall career titles. By the time of the Australian Open, she had stretched that lead to 40-28, after starting the season with victory in Sydney. Furthermore, 2007 had probably been Henin’s best year (2003 is the only rival), as she won 10 titles, including Roland Garros, the US Open, and the Tour Championships, and beat Serena in the quarter-finals of Roland Garros, Wimbledon, and the US Open, in the process levelling the head to head between them at 6-6. She had also edged out Sharapova 5-7 7-5 6-3 in an epic final of the Tour Championships, and narrowly beaten her in the semi-finals of the 2006 Australian Open, in a match in which Sharapova was the victim of a couple of highly dubious line calls.
So, Sharapova entered the match with a couple of scores to settle. Through the first four rounds, her form had clearly been the more impressive: she had beaten Lindsay Davenport easily in the second round, and demolished Elena Dementieva 6-2 6-0 in the 4th, but Henin also appeared to be playing pretty well, coming through a stern test in round 3 against Francesca Schiavone, and not yet dropping a set in the tournament. Given that, Sharapova’s demolition job was mightily impressive. Like Pierce before her, Sharapova is at her most effective when she can get on top of the point and dominant the baseline with her aggressive groundstrokes. On this occasion, she was on the offensive from the outset. Henin resisted reasonably well in the first set, but the second was all one-way traffic, and as in her previous Grand Slam title, Sharapova achieved her signature result with a bagel set against a world #1. From there, the tournament was for her to win and lose, especially as Serena lost against Jelena Jankovic in the quarters. Sharapova beat Jankovic 6-3 6-1 in the semis, then won a tighter final against Ana Ivanovic, but still went through the tournament without dropping a set.
That gave her a third separate Grand Slam title before her 21st birthday. With Henin’s sudden retirement in the spring of 2008, and with Serena’s form still not what it is now, Maria’s prospects of becoming a clear #1 player seemed good. Then her shoulder injury struck and she wasn’t the same player for some years. Now it seems as though she’s not only some way behind Serena, but has been eclipsed by Victoria Azarenka as well. Even so, winning all four Grand Slam titles makes it an excellent career, and finishing a year as #4 in the world is hardly to be sneezed at.