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An all-time great on an all-time roll

January 21, 2013 01:31 PM
Serena Williams has lost just one match since the 2012 French Open.
By Matt Cronin, special to USTA.com
MELBOURNE—Serena Williams went into the Australian Open as the heavy favorite, and nothing has changed in the first eight days of the tournament. She suffered what appeared to be a potentially troublesome ankle injury in the first round and still managed to pull off a 6-0, 6-0 victory. Her ankle was still sore for her second round contest, and she dropped all of two games. Then the 15-time Grand Slam champion had to hustle in her third round, and lost as astounding four games.
On Monday night, the five-time Australian Open champion went up against a smart and quick veteran in Russian Maria Kirilenko, who was playing quite well coming into the match. Serena blew her doors off, 6-2, 6-0. 
Kirilenko said she thought she had to hit every ball perfect to have a chance of winning the match. Essentially, she felt her Top 15 game wasn't good enough even to stay in rallies.
There is no shame in that, not when you realize that at the age of 31, Serena has embarked on one of the greatest streaks of her career. She has only lost eight games in her first four matches at this year’s Aussie Open. And in winning the Brisbane crown two weeks ago, she didn't lose a set. 
Going back, at the end of last year she didn't drop a set against the rest of the world’s elite at the WTA Championships. And prior to that, she only lost one set in seven matches en route to the 2012 US Open title, which came against current world No. 1 Victoria Azarenka in the final.
While it’s been clear for some time that Serena is one of the all-time greats, the fact that she is currently playing at the same level—or even better—than she was back in 2002-03, when she completed her "Serena Slam," is phenomenal considering what she has gone through physically in recent years, a run that has included knee and foot injuries and subsequent blood clots that took her off the tour for nearly a year.
In all, Serena has currently won 20 straight matches since losing to Angelique Kerber at Cincinnati in early August, one short of her career best 21-match winning streak. 
While world No. 2 Maria Sharapova has only lost five games going into the Aussie Open quarterfinals—three fewer than Serena—and top seed Azarenka has righted her ship with a quick win over Elena Vesnina, there is no way that they can be considered to be on the same level as Serena until they actually beat her again.
Azarenka, whom Serena could face in the semifinals, has a 1-11 record against Williams and lost to her all five times they played in 2012—in what was the best season of Azarenka’s career, no less.
Sharapova, meanwhile, has not found a way past Williams since 2004 and has lost her 10 sets to the five-time Australian Open champion. And No. 4 Agnieszka Radwanska, who has also started the year very quickly, winning 13 straight matches, has never beaten Serena in four meetings.
Williams has stated that she is a better player than she was back in her Serena Slam days. She may very well be. Clearly, she is not as fast as she was, but she is more solid off the ground and hits just as big, is a more accurate and consistently powerful server, and now reads her opponents tendencies with a technician’s eye.
Since Virginia Razzano stunned her in the first round of 2012 Roland Garros, she has even worked harder. For the first time in her career, Serena spent her offseason training abroad, going with her coaching consultant Patrick Mouratoglou to the island of Mauritius.
Mouratoglou holds an off season camp there annually, with a slew of coaches including former No. 1 Martina Hingis, and other pro players such as Jeremy Chardy and Anastasia  Pavlyuchenkova.
Serena’s mind has been on her job, and she hasn't missed a beat.
 "I've been spending a lot more time on the tennis court, I think, and doing a lot of things I love," Serena said. "I've been more kind of relaxed just in general. So I think everything just came together with the right timing with me wanting to do better, with me wanting to work hard, [Patrick] being there and having everything to work hard, and having the same mind frame of playing matches for the way I like to play. So I think life is about timing, and it was just good timing."
While Serena has cruised for her first four matches in Melbourne, she expects a tougher match in her quarterfinal against U.S. teenager Sloane Stephens, her Fed Cup teammate, who scratched past Bojana Jovanovski Monday to reach her first Grand Slam quarterfinal.
The 19-year-old Stephens played Serena tougher than any other competitor this season, pushing her hard in 6-3, 6-4 loss in the quarters of Brisbane. One of the fastest players on tour, Stephens was able to hang with Serena off the ground, but she didn’t come close to breaking her. 
Yet even though they grew close during Fed Cup and chat frequently off court, Stephens takes the same attitude Serena does when it comes to competition. Serena complemented Stephens on her amazing play, but added that she won’t be giving her pointers before they played.
Stephens praised Serena’s talent level, but said she isn’t awed, which should make for a delicious quarterfinal.
"There won't be that like first time, ‘Oh, my God, I'm playing Serena,’" Stephens said. "That's kind of out of the window now. And then it will feel more of like a regular match instead of all the other things to think about. It just happens to be Serena. She's obviously one of the greatest players to ever play the game. Without all that, it's still a tennis match. You have to go out and play your game, no matter what."
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For more coverage of American players at the 2013 Australian Open, see:


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