The day was a wet one at Wimbledon, with rain persisting long enough to force all non-Centre Court matches to early-evening or nighttime conclusions. Some matches didn’t even finish, creating a backlog that will disrupt the second-week schedule at the All-England Club. (More will be said on that subset of problems in a separate piece here at Attacking The Net.)
Yet, while Saturday provided plenty of precipitation, the well of good tennis ran dry for Serena Williams after the first set of her extended battle against Alize Cornet. Abruptly, tennis pundits and commentators have been presented with a new reality on the WTA Tour, though the duration of the reality is the true topic that must be wrestled with in the course of time.
The reasons Serena lost very much included her opponent. Cornet ran down dozens of shots that lesser players — or equally talented players on less-inspired days at the office — would not have retrieved and kept in the court. Cornet didn’t merely retrieve balls and keep them in the court, either. She was able to block back floaters with enough depth that she was able to reset points. She was able to hit plenty of defensive backhands with enough pace and angle that Serena had to scramble to get balls back in her own right. Cornet did indeed play a high-level match, scoring one of the foremost wins of a career marked by come-from-ahead losses, elaborate on-court meltdowns, and failed flirtations with the handsome suitor known as Potential.
It’s a worn and familiar refrain in the upper reaches of competitive tennis, but said familiarity doesn’t make the statement any less true: If Cornet can regularly compete the way she did against Serena, she can make major quarterfinals and semifinals, getting past her longstanding reputation as a first-week player at the biggest tournaments in the world. So many players fit that description, and Cornet’s win is, for her, a resounding statement that she has it within her body and mind to deliver better results than what she’s shown over the years.
So, credit has been given to Cornet for answering the bell, especially after being dusted in the first set, 6-1. That one detail of Cornet’s 1-6, 6-3, 6-4 win is what makes the feat supremely impressive. Yet, that very same detail is also what makes it impossible to look at this match primarily through the prism of the winning player. One can give full and abundant credit to Cornet and yet walk away from this match wondering one thing more than anything else: “What the heck happened to Serena Jameka Williams?”
When Serena lost to Ana Ivanovic in the fourth round of the Australian Open, she was injured. Her mobility became noticeably limited during that match, and Ivanovic took full advantage with an atypically poised performance.
When Serena lost to Garbine Muguruza in the second round of the French Open, nothing ever went right from start to finish. It was just a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad day for the 17-time major champion.
This Cornet match did feature a lot of what emerged against Muguruza in Paris. Serena’s footwork wasn’t crisp. Her body rotations as a returner of serve weren’t sharp. Cornet was able to get a lot of free points in the last two sets on body serves, even ones that weren’t hit particularly hard. Serena hit a lot of shots at half pace, and not by design. She frequently failed to strike a ball crisply when it could have put her in a winning position.
What also transpired in this match — much like the loss to Muguruza — is that Serena’s trademark patience didn’t come to the forefront. Serena, by virtue of her quality and consistency, was (note the past tense) long able to perform one of tennis’s central tasks better than anyone else on tour: Hit the extra ball. If you’re the stronger, more skilled player on court — that’s what the younger Williams sister has been for the past several years in women’s tennis — you should feel that you can outlast anyone else in a demanding rally. If your opponent plays great defense and keeps getting balls back, you should feel that you can hit three, four, five, six more balls to eventually put away a point while having the added benefit of tiring out your opponent. On this day, though, Cornet would make four retrievals and Serena would not be able to offer a fifth reply.
The bottom line is that Serena has now failed to make the quarterfinals in each of the year’s first three majors. Yet, losing at Wimbledon not only feels different. It is different… as is this loss when compared to the Ivanovic and Muguruza setbacks.
Why is this loss to Cornet on grass different from the Muguruza shocker on red clay?
First, Serena had established a comfort zone in this contest. She was nervous to start the match when it began a bit before 1:30 p.m. local time at the All-England Club. Cornet missed an easy passing shot that would have given her two straight breaks of Serena’s serve, and at 1-all, deuce, the rains figured to settle Serena’s nerves. They did exactly that, as the best active player on the WTA Tour won five straight games following the resumption of play over four hours later, at 6 p.m. When Serena won the first set with what’s known in tennis terms as a “breadstick,” any reasonable person would have said, “Well, no Muguruza blues or Ivanovic agonies today for Serena. This seems pretty straightforward.”
The fact that Serena had a good groove and then lost it is obviously a testament in part to Cornet’s competitive quality on Saturday evening. The opponent always has a say in the dialogue of tennis, which is different from the monologal relationship between a golfer and a golf course. Yet, it has to be alarming to some degree that Serena gained hold of a match, only to so completely lose the plot in the second set, in which Cornet gained a 5-0 lead.
Second, Serena was supposed to make a stand at Wimbledon. Even though Serena won the French Open in 2013, clay has always been her worst surface. When she flamed out against Muguruza, she expressed a fierce desire to get things right for Wimbledon, a tournament she’s won five times. When she lost to Sabine Lisicki at Wimbledon last year, she was taken out by an opponent who served bullets and played attack-based tennis. Cornet is not that same kind of player — she won this match with defense more than Lisicki’s boom-boom brand of offense. When Serena’s losing to a defense-first player on grass, you’re darn right that eyebrows should be raised.
Third, Serena made a few mistakes in critical, match-turning situations that were entirely within her power to avoid. No failure was bigger than a relatively simple volley Serena botched on the second deuce point of the telltale game in the third set. Serena blistered a groundstroke to the ad corner and received a short crosscourt reply from Cornet. Serena got to the net in plenty of time and had a nice, high backhand volley to knock off. Instead of sharply punching it away, though, Serena got under the ball and lofted a harmless, soft volley that Cornet was able to easily retrieve for a routine passing shot. Having fended off three break points earlier in that 2-2 game, Serena finally had her chance to get a game point of her own, but that botched volley gave Cornet a fourth look at a break point, and the Frenchwoman deposited a backhand that skidded off the baseline in the worn area where grass gives way to dirt as Wimbledon moves along.
Continuing this specific point — namely, that Serena made mistakes which were both preventable and costly — the 17-time major champion squandered other points at the net, failing to make volleys that should have been finished without a second thought. Unlike the Muguruza loss, Serena — though not overwhelming as a server — was able to accumulate a fair number of cheap points on serve. Those kinds of points kept her in contention until the end. Yet, a failure to make relatively normal plays at net, and to display some measure of touch in response to Cornet’s assortment of drop shots, prevented Serena from being able to cross the threshold from uncertainty to victory.
What overarching storyline emerges from Serena’s loss? The following summation should suffice: This is rare (albeit not unprecedented) territory for a decorated champion, at least in relationship to the past six years of her career. Serena encountered a professional valley from 2004 through early 2008, except at the Australian Open (where she won in 2005 and 2007), but since the 2008 U.S. Open, her career found a second golden age, complementing what she managed to do in her dominant early-period seasons of 2002 and 2003. The 2014 season is easily Serena’s worst stretch at the major tournaments since the 12-month period from the 2007 French Open through the 2008 French Open. In that span of five majors, Serena couldn’t get past the quarterfinals, much as she hasn’t been able to go beyond the fourth round in each of the past three majors this year.
There’s an important difference to note, however: In the summer of 2008, Serena was 26. Now she’s 32. No, Serena’s not done or over the hill. Roger Federer, for instance, remains a vital force in men’s tennis just before his 33rd birthday. Serena definitely has more majors in her. Yet, with the accumulation of both years and miles on the tires, it becomes that much harder for players to sustain the body-mind dualism they need to be great.
Serena looked slow on the court against Cornet, and her footwork — as mentioned earlier in this piece — was substandard. Though not physically impaired, Serena didn’t get the most out of her body in this match. Yet, while the body wasn’t as responsive as it needed to be, the mind wasn’t, either. The poor responses to drop shots; the lapses in concentration at net; and a panicky final game at 4-5 in the third all stood in contrast to the Serena we’ve typically seen in tight matches at big tournaments in recent years. If one wanted to say that mental fatigue is more prominent than physical strain at this point in Serena’s journey, one would have plenty of evidence to cite.
The story, though, isn’t so much about physical deficiencies, mental fatigue, or age in isolation; it’s all of them in combination with each other. Look at the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals and the Spanish soccer team in the World Cup. It’s not as though those teams forgot how to play well or ceased to be champions. After proving themselves so many times in the arena, again and again and again, the same quality just couldn’t be called forth this time around. The 2014 season feels like that for Serena, much as the 2011 season felt for Roger Federer near age 30 after his prime period ended in 2010.
However, we saw how Federer rebounded in 2012, just when it seemed to some that there were no glorious tennis celebrations remaining in his storied career.
Yes, the well has run dry for Serena Williams in 2014. That is the new reality of women’s tennis. Don’t be so sure, though, that 2015 will bring more of the same. One way or another, it will be fascinating to see how this lauded champion meets this latest crossroads moment in a one-of-a-kind career.