— MELBOURNE, Australia - At the beginning of the Australian Open, Serena Williams struggled, looking for her rhythm and making too many unforced errors. She has gotten her game together and is my pick to defeat Dinara Safina in the first women’s final to be played at night Down Under.
Having won the U.S. Open last September, Williams, who is 9-3 in Grand Slam finals, is looking to duplicate her 2002 U.S. Open-2003 Australian Open double. Experience has to be figured into the equation and Safina is going for her first major. Williams is tough to take down when she gets in this situation. She is very intimidating to her opponents because she has so much power and has had so much success.
Williams has played nothing like a No. 2 seed. She has been dominant for the most part. This is her 13th Grand Slam singles final (a number that ties her with sister Venus) and all signs point to her claiming her tenth major. With a victory against Safina, Williams will take over the No. 1 ranking in the women’s game.
Safina, the No. 3 seed, has long been known as the younger sister of Marat Safin. In 2008 she became the better player in the family by finishing No. 3 in the year-end rankings. She had a breakout year, winning four tournaments and reaching the French Open final. She also made impressive strides learning to control her impetuousness on court. Not only is her head better but so is her fitness after dropping 15 pounds since Wimbledon last year.
In head-to-head play, Williams leads 5-2. (One of Safina’s wins was a walkover). The 2007, 2005 and 2003 Australian Open winner has been more expedient with her play, spending eight hours and 35 minutes on court completing her six matches (an average of 96 minutes per contest). Safina has had to work much harder, clocking ten hours and 57 minutes (or 110 minutes a match).
Very little separates players on this level when it comes to strokes. Williams sometimes plays her forehand off her back foot. She needs to make sure that she stays down, steps forward and has good footwork. When she does this, she dictates play. When she doesn’t do it, she struggles and the ball sails long.
On the forehand, Safina likes to let the ball drop. She stands further behind the baseline to get the ball at a comfortable contact point. Doing that, it is harder to get the ball up and over the net and back in the court. It also causes her to hit it a bit late and with that fraction of a second, her opponent has more time to get ready for the next shot, and get back into the point.
Against (Vera) Zvonareva in the semifinals, Safina did much better hitting her forehand in front of her, and mixing deep crosscourt shots with short angles. Even if Safina does this again in the final there’s no getting around the fact that Williams has a better forehand.
Both players have wonderful backhands. If I had to rate them, both would get 10s. If I had to pick one, it would be Williams because I have so much confidence that she can do whatever she needs. Whether it is a deep cross-court, an angle cross-court or a shot up the line, she will hit the necessary shot.
Williams has the most technically sound serve on tour. If kids were looking to learn how to serve, I would tell them to watch her. Everything moves fluidly. She has good knee bend and propels herself up into the serve. Her shoulder rotation gives the serve power. I think her second serve, (along with Samantha Stosur’s) is the best in the game. It has a high kick and is very tough to attack.
Safina has a very high ball toss, and sometimes she lets the ball drop, particularly if she is getting nervous. That forces her to make contact with the ball in different places as it is coming down, which makes it more difficult to be accurate. This is being very picky but Safina has had an issue with double faults during her last few matches. For the tournament, she has hit 13 aces compared to 28 double faults.
Neither player really likes to be at the net but when they’re up there, they are competent. Williams is more willing to move up and take a ball out of the air, hitting a swinging volley. She also has a better overhead.
Safina had the day off to prepare for the final. Williams played, winning the doubles title with Venus. They defeated Daniela Hantuchova and Ai Sugiyama, 6-3, 6-3. The match was not overly taxing. It served as a good warm-up for the final. With the title, the sisters have eight women’s, four mixed and two Olympic doubles titles. It is interesting to note that over the past ten years, the Williams have won 16 of the women’s 40 Grand Slam singles championships.
With a victory, Williams will join a select group of players with four Australian Open women’s singles titles -- a group that includes Margaret Smith Court, Evonne Goolagong Cawley, Steffi Graf and Monica Seles. Williams certainly belongs with these history makers and look for her to join them by taking care of Safina.