HENIN AND SERENA, THE TWO PRINCIPLE GODDESSES OF TENNIS

By Christopher Rourke

This Final match, the first Grand Slam final of the 2010s brings the two greatest female players of the 2000s into battle for the fourteenth time. Their first match took place at 2001 US Open, where Serena defeated Henin in the fourth round, 7-5 6-0.  The nineteen year-old Henin, had been a semi-finalist at Roland Garros that year and was the finalist at Wimbledon, losing to the defending champion, Venus Williams.  Many would argue that these two players are not merely the two best players of their generation – but the greatest female players *ever*.  Both of these players have the singular ability to hit winners from any part of the court – still exceptional on the women’s Tour – and the capacity to utterly dominate their opponents.  As such, they remain the most aggressive players at the top of the women’s game.  This was demonstrated emphatically by Serena in her quarter-final against Victoria Azarenka. Finding herself 4-6 0-4 down, and seemingly out, of the match Serena cut down her groundstroke errors, and began hitting the ball much harder, hitting return winner after winner, producing yet another serving clinic, hitting 17 aces and many other unreturnable serves to close out the match – dragging out a titanic performance, seemingly from nowhere.  Serena struck 57 winners to Azarenka’s grand total of 22.  She made the match totally about herself, her own  performance.  As Azarenka said: “She [Serena]  started playing unbelievable from 4-0. I’m really impressed with her… . She has very powerful shots. You don’t see many girls serving 200 in the third set”.  In very similar fashion, after struggling through her second, third and fourth round matches against players ranked in the top 5 and top 30, and producing a solid 7-6 (7-3) 7-5 win against the former world no.3 Nadia Petrova, Henin demonstrated her full all-court mastery in her semi-final match against China’s Jie Zheng. In a match that lasted only 50  minutes, Henin struck 23 winners to Zheng’s grand total of 3 and won 10 out of 13 of her net approaches.

As such, this final represents the fourteenth meeting between the two principle goddesses of tennis, a clash that can be allegorised to a battle between the warriors Artemis and Athena.  Here, the splendid Rod Laver arena is the grand stage equivalent of mount Olympus, Rod Laver arena being the Centre Court of the the first Grand Slam tournament of the year.  Remarkably, this will be Henin and Serena’s first clash in a Grand Slam tournament final, because the players have repeatedly found themselves in the same half of a Grand Slam tournament draw – in all six on their Grand Slam meetings.

Here, I will review how these extraordinarily gifted players match-up, stroke for stroke, in primary features of the game.

SERVE
Serena Williams

Serena Williams has the best first serve and the one of the best second serves in the women’s game.  Though not struck quite as hard as her record-breaking older sister’s, Serena can hit all parts of the service box, and hit ‘flat’, slice and kick serves with ease.  Serena consistently leads the ‘ace’ and ‘points won on 1st serve’ categories, at every Grand Slam tournament. At this tournament, Serena has struck a total of 53 aces, to
Henin’s 23.  Venus Williams, a quarter-finalist, finished with a total of 21.  On numerous occasions, Lindsay Davenport described Serena’s serve as the ‘best serve in women’s game’ and the best serve that she had faced in the entire length of her career.  Of Serena’s serve, her fourth-round opponent,  Samantha Stosur said: “I think the three breakpoints I got, she hit two aces and were a completely unreturnable and they were all over 190… Couple times I actually guessed where she was going and she still got me…. (.)more so than even the power, the variety. When she’s on, she’s able to hit it within ten centimetres of whatever line she wants. When she’s got that trajectory and is so close to the lines, it’s not easy to return.  She doesn’t hit every serve over 190. She goes 160, 170, and you think it’s not that fast. But when they’re on or very close to the line, they’re still very hard to get”.  Serena’s serve exhibits a perfect confluence of
technical excellence and simplicity of production.

Henin has a good, and very powerful serve – she has been serving up to 190 kmh at this year’s tournament.  However, she has not been serving as well as she did back in 2003 and 2006 – 2007.  Henin’s serve has always earned her some free points, and allows her to begin most rallies from an offensive position. However, both Henin’s first and second serve can break down, and critically during key points in matches. This occurred in the Brisbane final, when Henin held two match points, serving at 5-4 in the third set against Kim Clijsters.  This brittleness occurs partly because Henin has continuously reworked and reformed her service motion during the length of her career, as far back as the autumn of 2001.  Thus, as Sam Smith has pointed out, Henin’s service motion is never “fully part of her”.  Any frailty on Henin’s service will be brutally exposed by Serena, the most fearsome, and destructive, returner in the women’s game.

RETURN of SERVE
Serena / Henin

Both players have very destructive returns and frequently hit outright winners on both second *and* first serves – which has the effect of immediately demoralising their opponents.  Serena’s return-of-serve [look out for her forehand crosscourt return-of-serve from the ‘deuce’ court] can be a little more powerful than Henin’s but Henin gets slightly more of her service returns back into court.  In her 2006 – 2007 prime, Henin was winning as much as 55 – 60%+ points on the return-of-serve, more than any player on the women’s Tour.  Both players are roughly equal in this feature of the game.

FOREHAND
Henin

Serena possesses a very powerful forehand – and has recorded, from the data that i have collected, the fastest groundstroke in the ‘Hawk-Eye’ era; a forehand meassured at 154 kmh [= 96 mph] in her quarter-final match against Ana Ivanovic in Dubai on the 19th February 2008.  However, Serena’s forehand can break down, primarily because as she needs a lot of set-up time to prepare for the full-length of stroke. To explain, on the take-back, Serena often takes the racquet face as far back as [behind] her head and completes the swing with the racquet face lying down the length of her back, over her left shoulder.  The whole stroke is comparatively long and requires both good timing and excellent footwork to be fully effective. See: http://www.metacafe.com/watch/2114649/safina_vs_s_williams_forehand_r45_view_slow_motion/ – this is only moderate swing-length for Serena’s forehand.

Serena likes to perform the stroke with full extension, and when she doesn’t have the time for this, the stroke can lose a lot its potency and effectiveness.  There are some players on the Tour, notably Elena Demenetiva [specifically from 2007 onward], that exploit the mechanics of the stroke by taking the ball very early off their much shorter swings, hitting shots directly down the length of the court, straight at Serena. This takes away Serena’s set-up time on the ball, and forces Serena to improvise by using an almost ’emergency’-type swing, tamely brushing up against the ball, yielding a midcourt ball that can easily be attacked by the opponent.  However, when Serena’s footwork and balance are fully co-ordinated with the stroke production on forehand, it can be utterly devastating.

Henin’s forehand is equally as powerful as Serena’s, and certainly at average rallying speeds – but is produced from a far shorter and more compact swing, so is more functional, and efficient, especially when placed under direct pressure in a rallying situation.  At coaching conferences, Henin’s forehand has been isolated in seminars as the best in the women’s game.  My last coach, a performance coach based in the UK, explains that, almost unique among women players, Henin’s stroke production on the forehand closely resemble that of an ATP player. Henin’s forehand is both technically and (uniquely, in the women’s game) biomechanically excellent.

BACKHAND
Serena

Henin’s backhand received enormous attention from the tennis establishment when she broke into the top of the game in 2001 because it is a single-handed stroke that combines both high levels of power and variety.  However, much like Serena’s forehand, Henin requires a good deal of set-up time to unleash her single-handed topspin backhand – and many players exploit this by taking the ball early and hitting the ball very hard into the corner of the ‘ad.’ court.  This forces Henin to employ her slice backhand, as a defensive response to keep herself in the rally.  Early on in their head-to-head series, Serena directly attacked Henin’s backhand, knowing that she could rob Henin of time on the ball, and force defensive replies.  Many other players employ this strategy now, though some players find it hard to adjust to Henin’s slice -which can cut right into the court. Historically, though, Serena has been able to pounce upon defensive shots coming off
Henin’s backhand, and take control of the rally.

Serena’s backhand remains one of the more powerful backhands in the game, is technically sound and rarely breaks down.  Also, Serena is able to create acute angles off her crosscourt backhand, even when placed under pressure.

VOLLEY
Henin

Both Henin and Serena can volley well, especially at critical points in a match.  However, Henin is a superlative volleyer, with exceptional feel – and she has wide repertoire of volleying shots.  Henin has the ability to hit volleys from behind the service line – and still create winning shots from a very difficult position on the court.  Henin is probably the best volleyer in the women’s singles game, and certainly at the elite level.  Henin volleyed with increasing frequency towards the end of her first career, circa 2006 – 2007, and seems to be picking up from where she left off in this feature of her game.

Serena’s speciality is the forehand drive-volley, which she can play to spectacular effect. Her drive-volley is the best, the most destructive, in the game – a shot that she helped to popularise at the top of the sport. However, Henin has an almost equally good drive-volley, and has employed it frequently during this year’s tournament.

FOOTWORK
Henin

Henin has sublime footwork around the ball, perhaps the best in the women’s game. She rarely overruns the ball and is especially economical in her movement.  In marked contrast, and especially for a player of her ability, Serena has relatively poor footwork.  It can take Serena a full set of matchplay before Serena has properly conformed her footwork to the stroke production on her groundstrokes – as clearly evinced in her quarter-final match against Victoria Azarenka, where appeared off-balnace for almost a set and a half of matchplay.

BALANCE
Henin

Again, Henin is exceptional in this feature of the game – and normally retains superior balance than Serena on the fundamental strokes.

COURT COVERAGE
Henin

Though athletically restricted because of her height and natuural wing-span [Henin stands  1.67 m), Henin is one of the best technical movers in the sport and covers the court remarkably well.  Serena used to be an especially athletic player, able to retrieve many balls hit past the sidelines and return them with ease.  However, though she still covers the court well, Serena is no longer one of the very best athletes on the women’s Tour – players such as Elena Dementieva, Svetlana Kuznetsova and Jelena Jankovic have all overtaken Serena in terms of court coverage and athletic output.

* * * * * * * * * * * *
Serena and Henin are roughly equals, when examined across all features of the game, which serves to make this rivalry especially compelling.

Two external factors may effect the outcome of this match, however – Serena has clearly been injured from early on in the tournament, and her multiple leg and ankle injuries seem to have become more serious in her last two matches, inhibiting her movement, specifically in the ‘ad.’ court. Serena has made no attempt to retrieve what are, for her, easily makeable balls, hit within metres of her reach.  This is potentially concerning as Henin has the perfect game to exploit weaknesses in movement and court coverage, hitting to short angles off wings, to both sides of the court.  In particular, the short angles produced off Henin’s crosscourt backhand could be very damaging – and telling – for Serena.

On the other hand, Henin has struggled both mentally and especially physically to complete some of her matches in Melbourne, appearing physically exhausted in the closing stages of her third and fourth round matches.  Henin has spoken, quite honestly, of how her body has yet to fully adjust to the demands of playing physically and emotionally draining matches, having been absent from tournament play for a full twenty months.  Henin’s very quick semi-final win will help her enormously in this regard going into Saturday’s final.  However, the and the greater question may well prove to be Henin’s level of mental resilience in a Grand Slam Final – Henin’s first since September 2007.