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قدیمی 06-29-2015, 10:45 AM   #1
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بازیکن (های) مورد علاقه: Andre agassi - Monica Seles - Arthur Ashe - Rafael Nadal -Maria Sharapova - Roger Federer - Billie Jean King - Maureen Connolly - Bryan Brothers - Bjorn Borg - Mansour Bahrami - Justine Henin - Mats Wilander - Jack Sock - Serena Williams - Martina Hingis
پیش فرض Once and Future Queen

Tennis Magazine /SATURDAY, JUNE 27, 2015 /by STEVE TIGNOR

At 33, Serena may be further ahead of the field than at any other point in her career. (AP)
There are certain moments when we expect tennis players to tighten up. Serving for a match is one; reaching a tiebreaker is another. What we don’t normally expect, especially when we’re watching the pros, is to see one of them become so nervous about winning a game that she struggles just to put the ball over the net. But that’s what happened this April in Miami to the 12th-best player in the world, Carla Suarez Navarro, when she faced seven-time champion Serena Williams in the final.

Serving at 0–1 in the first set, with a chance to win the game, Suarez Navarro double-faulted twice before finally squeaking out a hold. The Spaniard’s early anxiety was unusual, but in her case it wasn’t surprising. When she played Williams at the US Open two years ago, Suarez Navarro suffered a humiliating double-bagel defeat in Arthur Ashe Stadium—and on her birthday to boot. That’s not the kind of loss you easily forget. Avoiding a repeat of that disaster was job one for Suarez Navarro in Miami; right from the start, the pressure was on her to win a game, any game.

Mission accomplished. Barely. She would win just one more game, as Williams rolled to her eighth title, 6-2, 6-0.

This, as Suarez Navarro knows all too well, is what playing tennis is like in the age of Serena.

“It feels good to have eight under my belt,” Williams said afterward of her Miami title. “I’d like to believe the older I get, the better I get.”

It’s hard to argue with her. Serena, like Roger Federer, will turn 34 later this year. Unlike Federer, though, she has rarely had to hear the dreaded “D” word—decline—mentioned alongside her name, let alone to her face. And why should she? Serena, in a career that has been unlike any other since its beginnings on the potholed public courts of Compton, CA, has saved her most surprising twist for last: She’s playing her most dominant tennis in her 30s.

Since recovering from a serious health scare in the spring of 2011, when she was hospitalized for a pulmonary embolism, Serena has been as close to unbeatable as any player in tennis history. From the start of 2012, when she was 30, through this year’s Miami Open, Williams’ record was 236–12, for a winning percentage of 95.1. As of 2012, Serena had been on tour for 17 years and won 39 titles; three years later, her title count is at 66.

Has any tennis player been so far ahead of the field? Has any athlete been as unrivaled as Serena in her 30s?

“When you look at the match-ups right now,” says Hall of Famer and ESPN commentator Pam Shriver, “you probably have to say no. On paper, it’s hard to think of a bigger gap. She can have bad days, but there’s no one who qualifies as a consistent challenger to her.” It takes two to create a gap, of course, and part of the reason Serena has gone unchallenged recently is that the majority of her competition spent the early part of the season in collective disarray. Former No. 1 Victoria Azarenka was returning from injury. Breakout star Eugenie Bouchard and Agnieszka Radwanska were struggling to adjust to new coaching relationships. Caroline Wozniacki’s surge had stalled. Ana Ivanovic was in a full-fl edged slump. Petra Kvitova was suffering from exhaustion. And Maria Sharapova, despite her success everywhere else, still didn’t have a clue how to beat Serena.

“A big part of her dominance is the Sharapova factor,” Shriver says of Williams.

While the Russian is a five-time major champion, she’s also 2–17 versus Serena, hasn’t beaten her since 2004, and has taken just one set from her in the 12 matches they’ve played since 2010. From a historical perspective, it’s the rivalry that should have been, but never was. Martina Navratilova had Chris Evert; Steffi Graf had Navratilova and Monica Seles; and in her 20s, Serena had Justine Henin. The Belgian, who retired in 2011, won six of their fourteen meetings and held a 4–3 edge at the Slams.

With Henin out of the mix, it seems that, on most days, only Serena can beat Serena.

“It hurt when Justine left,” says two-time US Open champion and Tennis Channel commentator Tracy Austin, “because she had the variety to throw Serena off. Now everyone plays a similar, hard-hitting style from the baseline, but not as well.”

As teenagers in the 1990s, Serena and her sister Venus helped create that hard-hitting style with their unprecedented power and speed, and the pioneering open-stance strokes that allowed them to combine offense and defense like no one before. And no one since: The rest of the WTA has spent the last 15 years trying in vain to catch up.

The latest challenger to throw her racquet in Serena’s ring is Simona Halep. The 23-year-old Romanian beat Serena in Singapore last November and pushed her to the limit in Miami this spring, falling 6–2, 4–6, 7–5 in the semifinals. But while Halep is a major talent and is 10 years younger, her size—she’s 5'6"—makes staying with the American an uphill battle. As it is with Serena and so many of her opponents, it’s one shot in particular that makes the biggest difference of all.

“The distance between Serena’s serve and everyone else’s is huge,” Austin says. “Just with that one shot, she puts herself ahead of everyone else.”

Is Serena going to be the first athlete to record a victory over Father Time? It’s still a long shot. Even as her physical skills remain largely unscathed by age, the years have taken their toll on her nerves.

In 2014, they made themselves felt at the biggest events. Three times last year Serena went out before the quarterfinals at the majors—to Ivanovic at the Australian Open, Garbine Muguruza at the French Open, and Alize Cornet at Wimbledon.

“She’s almost more vulnerable early in tournaments," Austin says, “before she starts building confidence.”

Shriver agrees. “It’s been a real flip-flop since Wimbledon last year,” she says, referring to Serena’s loss to Cornet and her subsequent, mysterious default in doubles, where she could barely swing her racquet.

One year later, as Serena returns to the scene of her strangest tournament exit, she remains indomitable on most days, yet potentially beatable on the right one. While she won the US Open last fall without dropping a set, and survived a series of early wobbles to take home her sixth Australian Open trophy in January, Serena admitted to feeling an unfamiliar anxiety at both tournaments.

“Right now in these matches,” Williams said after winning in Melbourne, “sometimes I get a little more nervous. Like in the US Open last year and this one, I was more nervous than I usually am in the Grand Slam finals. I made some errors ... that I normally wouldn’t make because I got a little tight and I didn’t move.”

This wasn’t a confession you heard often, or ever, from Serena when she was in her 20s. At the same time, her perfectionist’s penchant for self-criticism has increased along with her victories. In Miami, she punctuated her press conferences with comments such as, “I won, but I feel like I lost,” “I didn’t have my serve” and “I had to improvise my way to the final.”

What’s different about Serena is that her negativity doesn’t betray a lack of confidence. It betrays the opposite: She gets negative because she’s so sure of what she can do.

In Serena’s mind, if she’s not dominating, she’s not doing something right. Aside from Henin at her best, no woman has come along to prove her wrong.

The man who has been tasked, and credited, with channeling Serena’s talents for the last three years is her coach and frequent companion, Patrick Mouratoglou. Serena says the thoughtful, even-keeled Frenchman helps keep her calm on court, but he remains a little awed and mystified by her steeliness and ability to play through the tightness that leaves other players twisted in knots.

“I know there are things that come to her mind,” Mouratoglou told Sports Illustrated earlier this year. “And when they do, they make her incredible. There are things you can and can’t explain.”

Mouratoglou believes the foundation for Serena’s late run was laid early on.

“She has a certain education from her family that makes her a really tough person,” he said, “tough in competition, an unbelievable competitor ... The father did it with both sisters, so it has to do with education a lot. When education meets a personality like Serena, it creates, maybe, the biggest champion of all time.”

Serena has said that she doesn’t remember when she first picked up a racquet. “I just remember playing, all the time,” she wrote in her 2009 autobiography, On the Line. “It’s like tennis was always there, like going to services at [church]. Like breathing.”

She says that the way she viewed the world and related to other people was formed during the endless hours that her parents and sisters spent on those courts in Compton. But she didn’t just learn to hit forehands and backhands there; she also learned the intense, sibling-inspired competitive drive that remains the deepest secret to her success. From the start, little sister Serena was trying to follow, and ultimately surpass, big sister Venus.

Tennis has been there since the beginning for Serena, so it shouldn’t be surprising that it’s not going away easily. She looked ready to leave the game behind at various times in her 20s, but, like her countryman and fellow prodigy Andre Agassi, she returned to it with a determination to make up for lost time, and lost titles. Now, as Agassi did over the last six years of his career, she may be reaping the benefits of the breaks she took during her prime.

“I think we saw the same thing with Andre,” Austin says.“The time away has left her mentally fresher now. Both seemed to enjoy the sport more as they got older.”

Serena knows that tennis won’t always be there, and that retirement will eventually come. Part of the reason she returned to Indian Wells this spring after 14 years away was her desire to “write a different ending” with her fans there before she leaves the game.

But the question remains: When will decline finally set in for Serena, and what will spur it? No current player appears ready to pass her by, and there’s no young phenom blazing over the horizon. Navratilova passed the champion’s torch to Graf, who passed it to Venus and Serena. But Serena isn’t ready to hand it off to anyone. She’s left everyone else in the race behind.

Still, Austin believes that Navratilova could serve as a model for Serena’s inevitable good-bye from the game.

“If we want to talk about players being ahead of the pack,” Austin says, “it’s hard to beat Martina. She went 86–1 in 1983. And she was in a Wimbledon final when she was 37 [in 1994]. Serena isn’t the first to play well this late in her career. Martina showed that great champions can go on even longer.”

“She’s gained a lot of maturity over the years,” Shriver says of Serena. “If she has the desire, and keeps making good decisions about her career, she could go out on top.”

As Serena says, she’d like to think she has improved with age. But when she was asked this spring to compare her game now to her game 10 years ago, she wasn’t willing to throw her younger self under the bus. “I was pretty tough at 23,” she told ESPN’s Brad Gilbert with a smile. She sounded like a fan.

In 2005, Serena Williams was the future of American tennis and women’s tennis. Ten years later, she still is.
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