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Steve Flink: Serena Makes History with No. 23

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA— Tennis fans were rejoicing in every corner of the globe, on every continent, all across the world. Against all odds, No. 17 seed Venus Williams had reached her first major final since the 2009 edition of Wimbledon, and here she was in Rod Laver Arena confronting her sister Serena for the first major crown of 2017.

Her wide legion of admirers hoped for the best, wishing that the 36-year-old Venus could turn back the clock, hoping she might catch Serena off guard, and believing wholeheartedly that perhaps this popular and enduring champion would produce a masterful performance and register a major upset. Short of that, they wanted more than anything else for Venus Williams to make this match suspenseful, electrifying and compelling in every way. They yearned for a memorable clash that would linger for a very long while in their minds.

But it was not to be. This was unreservedly a night for Serena Williams to celebrate her prominence, to impose her will, and to demonstrate once more that the sport's primary stages are where she belongs. Serena has established herself irrefutably as one of the best big occasion players in the history of tennis, in either the men's or women's games. Put a big prize on the line, raise the stakes, place her in a setting of large prestige, and Williams comes through with regularity. To be sure, she lost two of three major finals that she contested in 2016, including the Australian Open final against a burgeoning Angelique Kerber. Tonight, though, she captured her seventh Australian Open title and her 23rd major by prevailing 6-4, 6-4 over Venus. Only six times has Serena come up short in a Grand Slam tournament final: twice against Venus, and once versus Maria Sharapova, Sam Stosur, Kerber, and Garbine Muguruza.

The final this time was lackluster, and at no stage did Venus seem genuinely capable of winning, but from the middle of the first set until the end of the contest, Serena performed with resolve, purpose, controlled aggression and deep intensity. With Serena in that mood, under those circumstances, Venus never had a chance to get on any kind of roll to build a lasting momentum.

The song " Anything You can Do" (I can do Better) always springs to mind when the sisters meet on a tennis court. Serena's first serve is more accurate and decidedly more deceptive. Her second serve is consistently deeper and much harder to deal with. Her two-hander is more explosive. Her forehand is more solid. Across the board, Serena Williams is the better tennis player, with the exception of the conventional punch volley. Venus is superior in that department, but that can't compensate for her deficiencies in other areas. No wonder she has been beaten eight of the last nine times by her younger sister; unless Serena is off her game or she suffers an anxiety attack, she is going to win. It is not rocket science, but simple physics. Serena has the tools to topple Venus whenever she is anywhere near the top of her game.

In this case, she was not playing particularly well, but Serena did find the magic at opportune times, and there was an air of inevitability about it all. Let's examine how it all unfolded. Venus started the contest apprehensively, falling behind 0-30 before serving an ace. Then Serena stepped in for a backhand crosscourt return winner. Down 15-40, Venus took a very short return from Serena and went crosscourt with her approach, but they know each other too well. Serena anticipated that move and connected immaculately with a forehand passing shot winner.

Off to an excellent start, up an immediate break at 1-0, Serena did not consolidate it. A double fault at 30-0 was costly. Serena still advanced to 40-30 but she lost that point by trying to take her backhand up the line, misfiring badly. Venus broke back for 1-1 as Serena received a warning from the umpire after smashing her racket on the court. But Venus drifted into danger swiftly. On her third break point in a three deuce game, Serena broke again on an unforced error off the forehand. Ahead 2-1, Serena moved to 30-0 with an ace down the T. She advanced to 40-30,but double faulted twice before serving an ace at break point down. Yet Venus took the next point and got back to 2-2 on Serena's third double fault of the game.

That was an inauspicious start for Serena. Now Venus held at 15 for 3-2 as Serena missed the mark time and again off the ground. In the sixth game, Serena trailed 0-30 after a forehand down the line winner from Venus and a wild forehand mistake of her own. But Venus netted a backhand down the line on the run and Serena followed with an ace. Serena collected the next two points to make it 3-3. That was a significant game to say the least. Venus tried earnestly to respond accordingly, serving an ace for 30-15 in the critical seventh game. But then she double faulted for 30-30, and Serena sensed an opening. She made a remarkably deep return, followed it to the net and executed a backhand drop volley beautifully. Now at break point, Serena's blasted a scorching return of serve that gave her a big opening for a backhand down the line. She hit an outright winner to gain the break for 4-3. Down 0-30 in the eighth game, Serena coaxed a forehand down the line error from Venus and served an ace out wide. Venus somewhat impetuously missed a backhand down the line by a wide margin, and then Serena packaged a superb first serve to the backhand with a winning forehand inside in. She advanced with that combination to 5-3. After Venus held in the ninth game, Serena served out the set in style. From 30-0, she released a pair of aces to hold at love. She had taken the set 6-4 in 41 minutes.

The second set opened with both players looking good on serve. Venus held at 15 for 1-0 before Serena won her serve at 30 for 1-1. A double fault put Venus behind 0-40 in the third game, but five first serves in succession helped the older player to hold on forcefully for 2-1. Serena was clearly perturbed by that lost opportunity but she held at 30 for 2-2 as Venus netted a forehand down the line from close range with the court wide open. Venus went four for five on first serves in the following game, moving to 3-2 with an ace down the T. Unswayed, Serena responded by holding at 15 for 3-3. She was ready to make her move again in the seventh game of the set, and proceeded to do just that.

After Venus fought off two break points, Serena stayed right on task. She earned a third one with a blazing backhand down the line that drew an error from a harried Venus. Serena followed with a crackling flat backhand return winner off a weak second serve. It was 4-3 for Serena, and she could practically taste the title.In the eighth game, Serena did not miss a first serve in a love hold. Not one of her deliveries came back. It was 5-3 for the No. 2 seed. Venus gamely held in the ninth game, but now it was time for the heavily favored player to serve for the match and the title. Venus made a final concerted and spirited stand here to work her way back into the match, hitting harder, going for her returns unhesitatingly, trying to throw everything she had at Serena.

The strategy was bold, but it failed. Serena opened that last game with a 193 kilometer first serve but Venus made a terrific return deep into the corner. Serena scraped it back down the line off the forehand, but Venus found the open court with a backhand winner. After Serena reached 15-15, Venus sent a forehand crosscourt close to the sideline to draw a mistake from Serena, and the crowd erupted. It was 15-30. But Serena remained unruffled. She drilled a two-hander down the line with good pace to elicit an error from Venus. It was 30-30. Venus made a penetrating return that put Serena on the defensive, but then big sister netted a routine forehand down the line. It was match point for Serena. She went deep to her opponent's backhand, and Venus could only chip short down the line. Serena moved with alacrity up to the net, rolling a forehand down the line. Venus could not get that shot back into play. Victory had gone fittingly to Serena Williams 6-4, 6-4.

And so Serena Williams has moved past Steffi Graf for the Open Era women's record with her 23 titles, and now stands only one major championship away from the all-time leader Margaret Court, who sat in the stands watching the final. Having won the first major of the 2017 season, Serena is poised in my view to at least tie Court this year for that coveted record. She has three more cracks at Grand Slam titles this year. The French Open will be the hardest one for her to win. She has won Roland Garros three times, but clay is not her best surface. At Wimbledon, she will be bidding for an eighth title. And at the U.S. Open, Serena will shoot for a seventh title. The guess here is that she will undoubtedly garner at least one of those three crowns, and perhaps will take two. If Wiliams is level with Court at the end of this year, she will still have a good chance to pass the Australian some time in 2018.

Meanwhile, it would be worth our while to reflect on the Williams versus Williams rivalry. This was their ninth final round meeting at a major, and Serena has been the victor in seven of those skirmishes. Overall, this was their 28th meeting, and they set a record for the combined age of the two finalists in the Open Era at 71 years. Their very first duel was fought out at the Australian Open no fewer than 19 years ago in Melbourne, with Venus coming through 7-6 (4), 6-1 in the second round. The first time they collided in a "Big Four" final was in 2001 at the U.S. Open. No two players in the history of tennis have met in major finals that many years apart. This must be celebrated. Serena also must be saluted for winning her first major back in 1999 and recording this victory in Melbourne in 2017.

To put that in perspective, Martina Navratilova took her first major singles title in 1978 and her last in 1990. Chrissie Evert got on the board in 1974 and won her final Grand Slam event in 1986. Steffi Graf collected her first in 1987 and the last twelve years later. Billie Jean King garnered her first in 1966 and her final one in 1975. Margaret Court broke through in 1960 and won her final "Big Four" singles event in 1973. Helen Wills Moody captured her first major in 1923 and her last in 1938.

So Serena Williams has surpassed all of these illustrious champions by a considerable margin in ruling at the majors over such a long period of time. Her latest victory here in Melbourne is another feather in her historical cap, and Serena must be admired for the way she has stretched her talent across her teens, through her twenties and now deep into her thirties. She is the oldest Open Era female major singles champion at 35. No one really knows how long she can keep this going, but at the moment she is going strong, moving back to No. 1 in the world and looking to add to her sterling credits.

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