Serena's Storm; Djokovic's Year of Wonder

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122333478JL070_2011_US_OpenFLUSHING MEADOWS, N.Y. — The entire stadium held its collective breath. After chair umpire Eva Asderaki uttered the fateful words, “It’s her point,” there was a hush in the vast arena. Everyone from primetime pop stars in the President’s Box and to Vinny in Row Z knew a storm was about to hit. The fury would not be a hurricane. Rather, it would be a far different force of nature, which nonetheless delivers a wrath that reduces all in its path to smithereens.

After all, there’s only one Serena Williams. Well, actually, no, there are many Serenas. There’s Serena The Compton Kid, with the heartening backstory, who with her older sister came to near domination in a sport with deep country club roots.

There’s Serena The Gutsy Player, who defied critics who claimed she took neither her sport nor her craft seriously.

And there’s the Wink ‘n Tease Serena, who seems to be just another vapid gossip-and-giggle celeb who can tweet aimlessly with the best of them and likes to inform you how difficult it is to shop for chandeliers.

Yet, as much as she adores prancing on red carpets, Serena, too, can be a reflective, pitch-perfect citizen who’ll touch on deep-think issues from slave ports in Ghana to the schools she backs in Africa to the bravery of 9/11. The most renowned American female athlete not named Billie Jean King is a hero to millions.

She’s navigated one crisis after another: from being hooted off the court at Indian Wells, nasty confrontations with Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez and Justine Henin at Roland Garros. There was the “You Cannot Be Serious” call she got at the U.S. Open against Jennifer Capriati in ’04, which led to a USTA apology and the implementation of Hawk-Eye.

Off the court, there were not only controversial commercials and videos, there was the devastating murder of her half sister, Yetunde; her parents’ divorce; romantic implosions; a serious knee surgery; a daunting, mid-career depression that led to a family intervention and therapy. Then there was her incredible Comeback I, when she came off the shelf to win the ’09 Aussie Open; and we haven’t even gotten to Comeback II after her “disaster year” of having her foot shredded by glass and surviving a pulmonary embolism.

Let’s face it, sans Serena, the Kim and Caroline Tour was more than adrift: rather bland, sizzle-free and void of much star power.

Ho-hum.

After all, as Harvey Araton noted, Williams is “the most intimidating player around when she is not caught up with all things Kardashian.” With her best-in-history serve, imposing forehand and fighting spirit in place, she swept through the post-Wimbledon summer — a Serena serenade. Chris Fowler said, “I just don’t know how you can compete against her.” Former No. 1 Ana Ivanovic refused to even look across the net at Williams. When asked what it was like to be down 0-5 to Serena in 19 minutes, the U.S. Open’s No. 4 seed, Victoria Azarenka, said, “It’s painful.”

“Williams has become,” suggested writer Filip Bondy, “the single most intimidating player in the history of women’s tennis…Whenever Serena steps on the court, women crumple before her, often playing the worst tennis of their lives.” Just ask Sunshine (that would be Caroline Wozniacki), the longstanding No. 1 seed who hasn’t really come close to winning a Slam and was crushed by Serena in the semis. Naturally, the world presumed, Williams would do the same against the buff Aussie jock Samantha Stosur, who had one of the more fragile glass chins on tour (which was painfully apparent during her loss to Francesca Schiavone in the ’10 French Open). But Stosur, now well-seasoned, bold and unafraid, pounded her forehand and swept her way to a (what’s going on here?) 6-2 lead. Then in the first game of the second set, Williams pounded a fierce forehand and immediately shouted “C’mon!” Serena at last had heard an inner alarm. At first, it seemed puzzling that Asderaki awarded the point (and therefore the game) to Stosur.

There was the briefest of hesitations. Then the collective realization sunk in. “Here we go,” thought some 23,000 souls. In a performance reminiscent of her foot-fault implosion in the ’09 semis against Kim Clijsters, the curtain lifted on a sequel. Serena’s theater of the absurd with its numerous acts.

First, a diminutive female foreign official makes a by-the-books but nonetheless debatable call (a foot fault deep into crunch time in ’09 and a rather overzealous hindrance of play call on a shot Stosur had zero chance of returning.)

The next act is the onslaught of a bully’s tirade. In ’09, it was, ” “I’m going to shove this f—ball down your f—throat.” This year, it was less x-rated, but it was rude, demeaning and abusive: “Aren’t you the one who screwed me over the last time,” Williams began. “That’s not cool. You ever see me walking down the hall, look the other way. Because you’re out of control – totally out of control. You’re a hater and you’re unattractive inside. Who would do such a thing? And I never complain. Wow. What a loser. You give a code violation because I expressed who I am? We’re in America last I checked…Don’t look at me, I promise you, don’t look at me cause I am not the one.”

Okay, Serena is the stand-alone women’s player of our generation, and is in the conversation with Steffi Graf and Martina Navratilova as the best player of all time. Still, that hardly gives her license to abuse, no matter how dicey the call (or the inconvenient truth that the game’s grunters hinder thousands of shots.)

Of course, almost as disturbing as Serena’s tirades is the way she deflects and spins after the fact. In denial, she jokes and giggles: la di da, all is cool. Once, when asked about a bad loss at Wimbledon the year before, she joked, “Did I play there last year?” She said after her near-death experience that she would even consider returning to Indian Wells. But later, at Stanford, when I asked about it, she said, “I said I would consider playing at Indian Wells? I must have been high on medicine, or something just as nice. I must have been misquoted or literally on meds. I mean, Indian Wells is a great place, I guess, but just not for me. That’s, like, so 2000. I’m not going back there. It’s 2011 now.”

Similarly, at the start of this year’s U.S. Open, her first Open since her foot fault implosion, I asked her the obvious. What had she learned from the incident? She replied, “I just remember I lost, and that was that. I got really popular. A lot of people were telling me they thought I was super cool, that they’d never saw me so intense. So, yeah, it was awesome.” Right, but again, did she learn anything from that episode? “I don’t know. I don’t think about it. Are you still thinking about it? Oh, my God, that was, like, two years ago. This is, like, two years later.”

Eleven days later, there was more. When asked if she regretted what she said to Asderaki, Serena deflected, “I just am really excited to be here really and to have gotten so far. To get here has been a really great experience.”

The reporter continued, “Why would you not regret saying things like…”

Serena jumped in, saying, “I don’t even remember what I said. It was just so intense out there…I guess I’ll see it on YouTube.”

Then I decided to frame things a little differently. “You’re one of our greatest champions, an elite athlete, a real role model,” I began. “Do you think it’s important for top-level athletes, even in the tremendous heat of the moment, to treat refs with respect?”

“I don’t know. I think that when you’re an athlete, whether you’re a basketball or football player or tennis player…we train all our lives since I was three — and I lie about my age a lot, but I’m 29. [Laughing]…Everyone lives to be in the final of Wimbledon or the U.S. Open. Whatever happens in that moment …we breathe for them, and hopefully I’ll be back for them.”

“Wouldn’t that be the moment to be most respectful of all?” I continued.

Serena replied, “I honestly don’t know the answer. We athletes give 2,000 percent. I know I do every time.”

In the end, Serena doesn’t understand the importance of accountability. She just won’t own her actions, let alone reflect on them. At least, most figured, as in ’09, she would face a hefty penalty. But, instead, she was just fined a pittance, $2,000, which, according to George Vecsey, “amounts to a tip to Williams’ manicurist, or maybe a little present to the attendant who parks her car at the Open.”

Williams is a smart woman with a bevy of life experiences. She has common sense. Asked about her brush with death, she poignantly noted, “I realize that life is so precious and things could be a lot worse. It isn’t all about tennis. It’s about life.”

Who could disagree? Similarly, this summer, when I asked her whether she could win the Open, she deferred, saying, “It’s all about the journey.” In New York, she said, “It’s important for me to look at the mountain and keep climbing.”

She can put things in a perspective.

It’s just too bad that, once again, in the perplexing, overcooked heat of the moment, she again fell off the path with devastating effect.

So we are left to ask, “Will she ever learn?” For obviously, no matter who you are – star or bum, millionaire or pauper — respect and accountability matter. Isn’t that’s what this curious journey is about?

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Standing tall, moving with an uncanny certainty, oozing with a quiet confidence based on months of success, Novak Djokovic swung away with astounding ease. Stepping in with his flawless technique and balanced power, he blasted flat and accurate lasers off both wings and returned serve like a deft swordsman.

Clearly, this thin, gaunt warrior has taken his sport to an even higher than ever, post-Federer level.

What the Serb lacks in balletic grace, he makes up with an uncanny geometric sense of the court and a chess master’s savvy as he changes directions, goes from offense to defense and demolishes his gifted foes. In the Open final, he simply pounded yesterday’s hero — bull Rafael Nadal — to win his first U.S. Open 6-2, 6-2, 6-7(3), 6-1 and his third Slam of the year.

The man who just a three years ago was maligned on Ashe Stadium by wise guy Andy Roddick for having 16 diseases including SARS and was hooted by the throng now, after four hours and 16 minutes of sizzling combat, blasted a fierce, inside-out forehand on championship point and fell on his back. He had mastered one of the great challenges in sport, the Big Apple challenge: “If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.”

But it wasn’t easy. Never mind hurricanes, annoying rains and delays. He survived a memorable first-set tiebreak (14-12) against Ukrainian Alexandr Dolgopolov in the fourth round, then survived two match points and beat the still-dangerous-after-all-these-years Federer thanks to “The Shot Heard ‘Round the World,” a searing forehand return of serve when he was down match point.

In the final, Djokovic stood firm and subdued a brave comeback from Nadal to prevail. Famously, at Wimbledon, Rafa lost his fifth final of the year to Djokovic. The Spaniard openly confided he would have to figure out something about Novak or he would again be explaining why he had lost for a sixth time. In his new autobiography, Rafa notes in some detail how he can break down Federer, there is a game plan. But against Djokovic, there is nothing.

Not that Rafa didn’t have his chances. He broke serve early in both of the first two sets. But Djokovic’s counter-attack was unflinching. In the first set, he won six straight games. In the third game of the second set, Rafa failed to hold serve in a marathon 17-minute, six deuce game that could have tipped the momentum. But the pattern was clear. Nadal was able break, but four times he failed to solidify the break by then holding his own serve.

Rafa — hitting short, loopy shots and playing deep in the court, at times seemed pedestrian as he was yo-yoed from corner to corner. Still, he bravely forced a tiebreak in the third and took advantage of three Djokovic errors to collect the tiebreak 7-3.

But the Spaniard had given his all just to win the third set. And, despite Novak’s tight back that required a medical time out, the fourth set was all his. The Open was the fourth Slam of his career and immediately the debate began.

The Serb’s record for the year is an incredible 64-2. He’s won three Slams (Australia, Roland Garros and N.Y.), he has five masters, a mind-boggling 20-2 record against top ten players and he’s lost only one match to his two top foes —Nadal and Federer. Plus, he led Serbia to the Davis Cup in December. Yes, the great Rod Laver won two Slams — a stand-alone achievement. And John McEnroe was 82-3 in ’84 and won two majors — Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, and Federer was 81-4 in ’05 with wins at Wimbledon and the U.S. There is more tennis to be played this year. But, arguably Djokovic’s accomplishments are more impressive, have greater range over varied surfaces and across assorted continents.

In the end the slim Serb has crafted the greatest 10 months in tennis history.