The Beauty, the Best and the King of Clay

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The first time I saw Serena Jameka Williams was in 1999. We were in New York. It was the US Open and, as a young 17-year-old, Serena was not expected to win. But she did. It was her first Grand Slam singles title. Since then, Serena has won a total of 30 majors (15 in singles, 13 in women’s doubles and 2 in mixed doubles).

The second time I watched Serena in person was in 2008. Playing doubles for Team USA with her older sister Venus, they won the Olympic gold medal in Beijing. In singles, she won another gold.

Last Sunday night on Solar Sports TV, the 31-year-old Serena faced Maria Sharapova. It wasn’t the first time they met. I recall their Wimbledon encounter in 2004 called “Beauty and the Best” — won by the long-legged Russian blonde.

Not two nights ago. Holding a 12-2 win-loss record, Serena has a mental edge over Maria — just like Rafa has over Roger, or Novak has over Rafa.

Williams easily defeated Sharapova, 6-1, 6-4. The match was over in 78 minutes. Serena — who has not lost to Maria since 2004 — is nearly-invincible because of two Bs: brawn and brains. If we talk of physical strength, nobody is more muscular. If we talk of mental strength, nobody possesses more resolve and willpower than Ms. Williams. (Add another B: a Boombastic serve, at times clocking 207 kph.)

With one more B — big bucks — it’s also the same: nobody, in terms of prize money among women athletes, has earned more. In her career so far, Serena has amassed $44.1 million.

And if that’s not mind-boggling enough, here’s further bad news for the women: At the press conference after her Madrid victory, she wore a red shirt that said, “Bestest Ever.” She then explained: “Every time I play, I really relish it more. I feel like, honestly, Serena, when are you going to get tired? I don’t know.”

With Maria, well, this we know: she doesn’t mind losing these days because she’s in love. Previously engaged to NBA star Sasha Vujacic, she has since dribbled away from basketball.

Maria’s new boyfriend is Roger Federer. No, not the Rolex endorser and the married man codenamed “Federer Express.” It’s the player whose game resembles that of RF: Grigor Dmitrov. The Bulgarian (who’ll turn 22 this Thursday) stands 6’2” and was a former world no.1 junior. He shocked Novak Djokovic in the first round of the Madrid Open.

In this sport where the word “love” is used each game, these two have found a love game.

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NADAL. Of the Spanish superstar, I’ve watched Rafa play twice. The first was together with Dr. Ronnie Medalle and his wife Steph and my wife Jasmin in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. That was in 2007. The following year, Jasmin and I witnessed the Olympic gold medal victory of Rafa in China.

Intense. Spin-filled. Physical. Tenacious. These are a few words I’d use to describe Rafa. Here’s one more: the Best Clay-Court Player Of all Time.

For all you tennis players, you know this: Grass is slippery fast; hard-court, too, is quick — but red clay is slow. And, when the games are long and the rallies are long, this is when Rafa excels.

Like last Sunday. In Madrid, Rafa was as comfortable speaking Espanol as he was winning points. He beat Stanislas Wawrinka, 6-2, 6-4. (The first set he won in half an hour.)

Rafa was out for seven months until last February because of a knee injury. He missed the Olympics and the US and Australian Opens. He missed too many — and this is why he’s winning many today, reaching seven straight finals and winning five.

Which brings us to Rome this week for the “Italian Open” and, in two weeks’, to the Super Bowl of clay-court events: the French Open.

Ranked No. 5 in the world, this number troubles Novak, Roger, Andy Murray and David Ferrer. That’s because Rafa can meet any of the top four in the quarterfinals. Imagine a Novak-Rafa contest in the Round of 8? Ouch. That would be bad.

I hope that doesn’t happen. I’m hoping for a Novak-Rafa final that goes five hours, five sets, with all four socks brown and a million drops of sweat watering the dusty red Parisian clay.

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