My 2011 US Open Hangover, Part 1: Sam’s Slam, Serena’s Classless Act

I was completely unprepared for how much last weekend’s US Open finals, both the women’s and men’s finals, were going to take out of me in terms of energy and emotion. Let’s start at the beginning on Sunday afternoon with the women’s final between Sam Stosur and Serena Williams.

This was a match that was supposed to be, for all practical purposes, the culmination of Serena Williams legendary comeback. She had romped her way through every field during the US Open Series, taking the top place for extra US Open bonus prize money. She had beaten Sam just weeks earlier in the Toronto final, and was expected to do so again…easily. From out of the blue it turned into something altogether different, however.

I should have known something was wrong with the prevailing expectations almost immediately when Serena was broken to start the match. After all, she had barely been broken through most of the summer season. Even John McEnroe stated on more than one occasion that Serena’s serve was one of the best in the history of the game. But not on this day, and not in that first set. Her serve let her down horribly.

Watching that opening game service breakdown was like buying a balloon; then having someone come along and pop it within the first 5 minutes!

I want everyone to understand that I’ve got nothing at all against Sam. Actually, I quite like her professionalism and work ethic. She is also one of the least assuming and nicest players on the tour. And I give her full props for her performance in that women’s final. Sam played a brilliant match against Serena: tactically sound and executed to perfection.

If you ever expect to beat Serena, this is a textbook example on how to get the job done. Make a bold statement to start the match by taking it to her before she has a chance to assert herself. If you have big groundstrokes, use them and don’t spare anything. Push her back immediately to a defensive posture, and let her know you can’t be pushed around the court. Having done that, she will be sufficiently off her game enough so that you can stay out front.

But something was off about the whole affair after the first three games or so. The anticipated match-up was clearly beginning to look as if it was never going to materialize. Like I said, the balloon had been popped…and no one was making a move to go buy another one. As well, our sodas were being spilled and the popcorn had been knocked out of our hands.

The unthinkable was happening on this stage that Serena loves so much. THE Serena Williams was playing perhaps the worst match she had played since…well, I can’t even think of the last time she made so many errors and served so poorly. It was odd and unsettling. There was a palpable sense that Serena was going to lose this one in spectacular fashion. We just didn’t know how spectacular it was about to become.

The first set was done and dusted in 31 minutes. 6-2 for Sam. This final women’s Grand Slam match of the year was about to end in a shocking rout. And then came the now-infamous “Hindrance Episode”! I won’t spend time on that because most people know what happened at the outset, what was said during the changeover, and what monetary punishment was levied as a consequence. The emotional aftermath it left on the final was another story.

I have admired Serena most of this summer and the manner in which she came back to the tour. I was even prepping a story about her admirable qualities, “There Are No Words To Describe The Almighty Serena”. Sure enough, there are words. They aren’t good ones. After her “ugly inside” comments, I could barely bring myself to think about anything positive to say to friends, let alone write an article.

But as I mentioned above, I don’t want to focus on that episode here. I would much rather focus on Sam Stosur’s great win. In particular, the focus she maintained as she dealt with an obnoxious Serena and a booing stadium full of people. Sam didn’t deserve to be an unwilling participant in that nonsense. That she only lost one service game during this period of the match speaks volumes to her play on that day.

I tried to shake my initial impressions of “the episode” as the match progressed and even afterward as I went about the rest of my day. But the more I thought about it, that scene was just too reminiscent of so many other overly-dramatic scenes with the very same protagonist.

Serena with Justine at the French Open. Serena with Jennifer at the US Open. Serena with Daniela at Wimbledon. Serena with Kim (infamously) at the US Open. And now Serena with Sam at the US Open. A vast array of dramatic scenes on big stage courts at the majors. All of these were moments that became more about Serena than about the match. Some were of her own doing, some were done to her. But it gets tiring after awhile, no matter the “why?”. Why can’t it ever simply be about the moment or the tennis, and not Serena?

Sam beat Serena comprehensively while keeping her emotions in check on this big occasion. This hasn’t been an easy feat for her past matches, notably her performance at the 2010 French Open final. She wasn’t able to rise to the occasion, and was outplayed by Francesca Schiavone. In this final, she not only rose to the occasion she dominated it!

But within the amount of time it takes to yell “Come on”, Serena had effectively made the story all about Serena (again), even in a loss.

Disgusting is a strong word. Perhaps a bit too strong. So I’ll use the word disdain. I felt immense disdain for what Serena did to the occasion, Sam’s impending victory, and to her own legacy. I needed something to take that bad taste out of my mouth: to help me forget the bad and remember the good. But there is nothing that can erase the ugly stain of Serena from Sam’s Slam moment.

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