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By Chris Oddo

Serena Williams, Family Circle Cup 2013 (April 9, 2013) -- Serena Williams didn't get to be America's all-time prize money leader by being a one-trick pony. That much was made abundantly clear when Serena claimed her 49th career title in Charleston in a psychologically scintillating match that was more mind game than tennis game.

Read: Serena Wins Third Charleston Title Over Jankovic

The 15-time Grand Slam champion has long been seen as an intimidating presence on tour, and on Sunday the 31-year-old made use of that reputation to great effect when she challenged Jelena Jankovic early in the second set.

It was a brilliant, if slightly sinister move by Williams. Down by a set and being outplayed, and apparently quite fed up with it all, she asked – no, told -- Jankovic on no uncertain terms that she needed to slow her service routine down and wait until she was ready.

What was interesting about the request is that a) Serena was ready when Jelena served then came out of her ready position, putting her racquet up while Jankovic tossed the ball and b) the rules quite clearly state the server is the one who gets to dictate pace of play in a tennis match.

Ehhibit A (Note that ESPN's version makes it appear that Jankovic is serving while Serena is nowhere close to being ready):



Exhibit B (note that in reality, Jankovic serves when Serena is in the ready position and, feeling not quite ready, Serena stands up and holds the racquet up):



Serena's actions beg the question: Was it really pace of play that was bothering her, or was she simply in need of a way to assert herself as the alpha-woman on court in this match? Or, did A just lead to B, and was Serena simply an unconscious observer of the Darwinian nature of a tennis match? Either way, rules about server dictating pace of play be damned, Serena needed a spark, and she needed to find a way to cool down Jankovic -- and quick. Whether or not her actions had been premeditated or not, sinister or not or bullying or not, they completely threw Jankovic's mental game out of a moving vehicle and into a ditch on the side of the road.

The rest of the match was played with Jankovic out of the vehicle and Serena in cruise control.

This is part of the genius of Williams, and one of the myriad reasons that she is the game's greatest champion at the moment, and one of the greatest of all-time. She doesn't just sit back and accept her fate. She doesn't say “oh, it's just not my day,” until all possibilities have been exhausted. She's a fighter, and we've always known that, but she's also an incredibly cunning and psychologically adept gameswoman.

“It's not like I'm going to serve when she's turned around," Jankovic would later say, when discussing the incident with press. “But I didn't understand that. You know, to me it didn't make sense because she was in stance, and I'm on the line, so she should be ready. She should follow my rhythm like I follow hers. But --”

Could it really be so hard to understand? It wasn't so much about the pace of play. It was about who the boss was. Serena wanted to make that, more than anything else, clear to Jankovic at that moment. Maybe even to herself.

Hence the famous words at the end of their impromptu chat: “Is there a problem?”

What could Jankovic do at that point? Say “yes” and risk lighting an even bigger fire to fuel Serena's comeback? Tough decision.

She elected to try to shake it off, but by doing so the damage had already been done. The psychological scale had tilted in Serena's favor and all that was left was for her game to follow. It did, and that was that.

“And of course, at 40-15 I gotta think about where I'm going to serve, where I'm going to hit my next shot if she gets it back,” Jankovic said. “And it just broke my momentum for some reason and that shouldn't happen. I should not let that affect me and just lose whatever, how many points I lost. That shouldn't be the case. But it did. It was.”

Here's what Serena had to say: “She was -- I just told her I wasn't ready. She plays fast. There's a couple of players on the tour that play really, really fast and she appears to be one of them, so I just wasn't ready. And I can't be ready to play if I'm not ready. So I just wasn't ready. That's all.”

Wasn't there a little more to the story? Were there really no ulterior motives? Whatever the case, it doesn't matter.

What matters is that, subconsciously or not, Williams found a way to rattle her opponent at a moment where her level of play wasn't sufficient to do so. She turned over a rock, in search of a way to win, and if it hadn't worked, she would have turned over another, and another.

On Sunday, only one rock was necessary. There is such a thing as presence on a tennis court, and when one person is clearly bigger and badder than the other, and nearly 10,000 paying customers (and the umpire) are made aware of it, that presence can have match-altering properties.

It won't show up on the scoresheet next to aces and unforced errors, but Serena proved on Sunday that sometimes words can be more powerful than the racquet.


(Photo Credit: AP)

 

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