US Open: Serena and the Grip of History

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By Bill Simons

It has no smell.

You can’t touch it.

You can’t see it.

It’s silent, but it shouts loud.

Pressure.

It descends,

It grips – an unrelenting vise.

There is little you can do, even if you are the greatest.

And one other thing. Within this New York arena, one wily veteran, Bethanie Mattek-Sands, could not have cared less about the woes and worries of Serena Williams.

Bethanie Mattek-Sands is not your grandmother’s tennis lady.

She laughs at convention.

Being different is her tonic. Tennis’ answer to “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” songster Cyndi Lauper tears up the script.

She’s not just another ‘ova. And remember this: Never underestimate the power of a woman who got married in a black dress.

Sure, we first dismissed Mattek-Sands as a fun sideshow, a dime store cowgirl who just met a soccer player. Mattek’s outfits reminded writer Eleanor Preston of “a church group doing a stage version of Barbarella.” A US Open fan once told IT, “It’s like Madonna went wild in a thrift store – those socks remind me of the ones they give you in the hospital so you don’t get blood clots.”

More recently, we pegged Mattek-Sands as a gritty survivor who has overcome a slew of surgeries. Or we recognized her late career surge, which included wins over Li Na at the French Open and Ana Ivanovic at Wimbledon. And we cheered when she won the Aussie Open mixed doubles crown and combined with Lucie Safarova to win both the Aussie and French Open women’s doubles titles. Goodness, this year little-known Mattek-Sands has as many Slam titles as Serena.

Striding strong, her glance certain, she promptly held serve against Williams. Then on her first return of serve, she unleashed a laser, a message blast, and before that stylish Great Neck broker in section 135 could mutter “career Grand Slam,” Mattek-Sands was up 3-0.

Bethanie is no boring baseline basher.

She scampers, she charges, she volleys and goes for winners. Her points are blurs, her court sense is a friend. There’s something about that gal, and something was going on in Ashe Stadium. Williams just wasn’t sure what it was. She was tense. She overhit. She blew “Intro to Volleying” sitters. Calm down, Serena. But she just couldn’t.

She seems to have to make it hard on herself. For her, easy is hard. Then again, the stakes of her run to history here are clear.

All the while Mattek-Sands – great hands, honed instincts – anticipated like a cat. On one scramble point, she stroked a dashing lob winner past the lunging queen of tennis. Unafraid, Bethanie gestured to the roaring throng, as if to say, “Okay, a French coach, a former New York mayor, a rock star and a stadium of fans may be shrieking for Williams, but I’m here, I’m Sands. Who’s Serena?”

Time and again Williams had chances. But the greatest clutch player in women’s tennis – in women’s sports, and maybe all of sports – faltered. Out of rhythm, she flailed on one break point after another, and blundered on a simple backhand to gift Mattek-Sands the first set, 6-3.

The crowd seemed to muse on a mean question: Could this night rain on the greatest tennis parade since Jimmy Connors‘ fabled 1991 US Open run?

Maybe Mattek-Sands was just another pretender zoning on shots, hoping for glory and tweaking the tennis queen’s crown.

Twice Serena was up 15-40 in the second set but could not break. Mattek-Sands – clutch and tenacious – would not be set back. Well, until at last Serena got it.

She needed to calm down, to stop over-hitting, and to start serving with authority. And, of course, she needed to solve the puzzle of Mattek-Sands, with her flat, well-angled groundies, brave net rushes and savvy low volleys.

Finally, Serena broke in the second set, and later, on her third set and her 16th break point, she leaned into a backhand to even the battle, a set apiece.

The whole of tennis seemed to sigh in relief. There would, they assumed, be no shock loss tonight.

Now it was showtime. Williams brilliantly sprinted to retrieve a drop shot. “C’mon!”, she shouted. From far off the court she unleashed an astonishing forehand cross-court winner and did a mind-boggling Kim Clijsters-like split that defied her age.

Again on this night, Serena’s 3-6, 7-5, 6-0 triumph defied time and sense. Williams showed her genius, her uncanny ability to counter adversity, her singular fighting instincts, her seemingly endless problem-solving skills, and her “I believe” ability to embrace the roar of history and the unkind force, the relentless weight they call pressure.