Championship-level tennis requires a considerable measure of fearlessness, which is why it’s beyond the grasp of so many players.
While Serena Williams, the top player in women’s tennis, admitted on Saturday that it took her a while to reach the necessary level of abandon while playing against older sister earlier in their respective careers, their semi-final match-up at the Rogers Cup wasn’t exactly suffused with restraint and tentativeness.
They bombed wicked serves, traded hellacious groundstrokes, ran one another all over the court.
An illustration: at 2-2 in the third set, Venus Williams cranked a pinpoint serve into the deuce court.
The ball skipped off the service line but Serena put a crushing return on it, landing the ball just inside the far baseline. Venus caught it early enough to hit a deep defensive backhand, which was returned in kind – just not quite close enough to the baseline to forestall one last bit of genius, a cross-court forehand winner that kissed the baseline.
Venus prevailed in that instance, as she did on the day, 6-7, 6-2, 6-3 to advance to her first Rogers Cup final.
“I really still don’t know really what happened,” she said about an hour after it ended. “I just kept trying to hit it in. Eventually it was over. Honestly, I probably will have to look at the match.”
Her run in Montreal – a city she had never played in – at a tournament where she had yet to win a match in her career until this week has been a long and taxing one, although she took the coy approach when asked if her body was feeling the strain.
“Maybe. Maybe not. She'll never know, ha‑ha‑ha,” she said, referencing Agniezka Radwanska and Ekaterina Makarova, who on Saturday evening played for the right to face Williams on Sunday. Radwanska, the third seed, won a baseline battle 7-6 (1), 7-6 (3) over Makarova.
Williams continued: “A lot of time on court. Making me trim down. Best diet ever.”
The 34-year-old Williams, who has won 45 tournaments in her illustrious career, has now reached a pair of finals in the WTA’s so-called “premier five” tournaments – the second-richest events on tour – that might seem like small beer to a multiple Grand Slam champion, but for a player who has seen limited success since being diagnosed with an energy-sapping autoimmune condition in 2011 (Sjogren’s syndrome) it’s a biggish deal.
Consider that she didn’t reach the final of any tournament in 2013, and did so only once in 2012
She entered 2011 ranked fifth in the world, but finished the year outside the top 100 for the first time since she was 17.
When it was put to her that she’s had to re-learn how to be a top-level pro through the management of her Sjogren’s (which requires a prescription drug treatment), she demurred, “I just feel better.”
“I have a regimen that I keep. I never get into details. One of these days when I’m gone I’ll talk about it a little more. At this point I have to remain competitive, so it’s important for me to just, you know, get out there and not complain,” she said. “If I don't win, I don't win. I go out and try to figure out how I can do it. That's pretty much what I've done. If I haven't won for whatever reason, I go back to that drawing board and try to figure it out. I think my recent success has been a result of that.”
The second-last point of the match neatly encapsulated that success; it featured an 11-shot rally where Venus tried to angle shots ever wider and Serena doggedly tracked them down.
Ultimately, the former was able to hit a forehand into the left corner that the latter, on the dead run, could only fry-pan skyward.
The ball floated high in the air, landing wide of the sideline.
It was the sort of shot at the kind of moment that players typically celebrate, but this was an encounter between two people who in addition to being related have done this before (25 times in fact) so a subdued fist-pump is as far as it went.
The elder Williams, now 34, has made it beyond the quarter-finals at a tournament twice this season – losing in a final to Ana Ivanovic in New Zealand and beating Alizé Cornet in the final in Doha, Qatar – but is rounding into shape at the perfect time.
Though her sister was plainly disappointed at losing – the first time in the last five meetings between the two that she hasn’t triumphed – there is a sense that form is being regained after a fitful season.
“I just hit so many double-faults this whole week. I have to really cut back on that if I want to do some winning here,” she said. “Not here (in Montreal), obviously, I lost. But in general.”
Serena Williams has made a habit of playing in Grand Slam finals, but with the U.S. Open looming a little more than two weeks from now, she said “I’m not even thinking of it anymore. I haven't even been able to get to the quarter-finals of a Grand Slam this year. At this point, really just looking forward to next year, to be honest.”
That’s the sort of remark that can be taken out of context, and she was quick to clarify her thoughts on a follow-up question.
“Don’t make a mountain out of a molehill. I’m just saying I've had a really disappointing year, especially in the Grand Slams, for me. So I’m not going to put any pressure on myself. I almost feel like the pressure is lifted because I haven't performed the way I've wanted to personally. Maybe for other people, but for me it’s not the way I’ve wanted to perform,” she said. “In a way, I don’t feel like, you know, a ton of pressure going into the Open. I almost feel like it’s lifted. I look forward to next year because I don’t have any (ranking) points to defend at any of the Slams.”