How Serena Williams turns complexity into simplicity

NEW YORK -- In "The Story of Ferdinand," a marvelous children's book written by Munro Leaf published in 1936, Ferdinand was a powerful bull who would much rather smell the flowers in his Spanish meadow than take on the matadors of Madrid.

Problem was, with the bullfight scouts watching one day, Ferdinand sat on a bumblebee and, at least for a moment, seemed furious and full of fight. When they carted him to the big city and placed him in the bullring, Ferdinand did not respond to the flashing red cape. He just wanted to smell the flowers in the ladies' hair.

In this, her most glorious of Grand Slam seasons, Serena Williams has played the role of Ferdinand. Eight times she has drifted off to sleep in the meadow and lost the first set of her 24 Grand Slam singles matches -- one-third of the time. And all eight times she has responded to that sobering sting.

Each time she faced elimination, Williams came back to win the final two sets, usually finishing with a flourish. It happened again Friday night against Bethanie Mattek-Sands.

"It's almost like she needs to feel backed into a corner to fight her way out," observed Justin Gimelstob, a Tennis Channel analyst who also coaches the top-ranked American, John Isner. "Serena generally finds her way through those traumatic situations.

"Sometimes she adds complexity to things, but in the biggest moments, she is able to simplify and play her best. That's not easy to do."

So this is what we have: a nearly 34-year-old woman playing some of the best tennis in her life. She's won each of her 24 Grand Slam singles matches this year, and if she runs off four more, she will achieve the first calendar-year Slam in 27 years, going back to Steffi Graf's perfect journey in 1988. Before that? Margaret Smith Court in 1970 and Rod Laver's epic Grand Slams in 1962 and 1969.

Playing Flavia Pennetta in her first match at Toronto earlier this month, Serena found herself down a set and a break -- and temporarily sort of lost her mind. She rallied, of course, to win in three sets. It was a fast, furious and full of fight 6-0 in the third.

Afterward, Serena was asked if it was frustration or anger that pulled her out of that yawning chasm.

"I think it's a little bit of both," she told the media after that match. "I was really frustrated with how I was playing. I was making so many errors. And then I got really angry. And then -- and that frustration just kind of was like, 'OK, just try something different, just keep going.'

"And then I felt like I was actually a little too frustrated and I was a little too down on myself, so I said, 'Serena, you're going to have to be positive and be good to yourself out here.' And then once I started being more positive, I started actually playing better, too."

This is a once-in-a-generation story and, even with the coming NFL season, could be the focus of unprecedented attention from the media next week.

Most of the experts we talked to think it's going to happen.

So, does Serena win it all in New York?

"Yes," said Gimelstob, swiftly and emphatically. "She does.

"She's the best player in the history of women's tennis, and she has gears her competitors don't have. I suspect she know this by now. She may not seem calm on the exterior, but she has belief. Sometimes it works against her; you'll see a lack of sense of urgency from the first point.

"But with everything on the line at the US Open, I suspect she'll tap into that top gear a little earlier."

ESPN analyst Darren Cahill is intimately familiar with Williams' strengths and weaknesses. He's been working with No. 2-ranked Simona Halep this year and saw his athlete lose to Williams in a straight-sets final in Cincinnati.

"Serena has put herself in this situation of making history," Cahill said recently. "She's already breathing rare air into the game. Who knows what pressure she's feeling? We can't walk in her shoes, but it must be immense.

"That said, there's no reason she can't complete the task. To my way of thinking, it's more than a great chance that she'll make this happen."

However, against Mattek-Sands on Friday night, the situation looked dire.

Mattek-Sands, fighting off a number of break points, managed to push it to 5-all in the second -- just a break and a hold from denying Williams an historic opportunity.

But Serena broke Mattek-Sands before she could force a tiebreaker, and the third set, well, it wasn't close. Williams, playing her best tennis of the night, won all six games, in all of 25 minutes, reminiscent of her comeback against Pennetta in Canada.

Take a look at how the match statistics against Mattek-Sands went, set by set:

Service record: 2-2, 5-1, 3-0.

Break points saved: 0-for-2, 0-for-1, 1-for-1.

Unforced errors: 14, 10, 4.

That's a winning trajectory. She was virtually perfect in that third set.

"I just made a lot of errors," Williams said later of the early going. "Had to play myself in after that. I mean, I knew that I could play better, so with that in the back of my mind -- because I made a lot of errors, but I knew this wasn't my best game.

"So I guess knowing that always helps me really play better. I just know usually when I'm down, I mean, I feel like if I'm not playing well, I know I can take it to another level. I just try to tap into the energy and I try to play better."