Questions are fair. Assumptions are not. And I think people are crossing the line on Serena Williams’ bizarre actions the other day, when she couldn’t catch the ball, couldn’t hold the ball, couldn’t toss the ball, apparently couldn’t see the ball, serve the ball or even hit the ball during warmups and the first few minutes of her Wimbledon doubles match with her sister, Venus Williams.
Three games into the match, after Serena had double-faulted on all four of her service points, including some serves that she hadn’t hit hard enough to get all the way to the net, they retired from the match. Venus held her hand as they walked to the net for the last time.
So what did you see? Because Chris Evert wondered aloud if Serena’s problem was something that needed to be drug-tested for. And Martina Navratilova said it was “clearly” not a sickness. Williams and Wimbledon officials made things worse by saying, overly generically, that the problem was a viral illness.
And the suggestions might be right, or might not be. My inclination is to be concerned for her emotional state before being suspicious of her behavior. I’m still going back to her singles match a few days earlier, when she seemed scared, fought off tears and played poorly. I’m not just saying this in hindsight, either. What I wrote after her singles loss was that she seems afraid.
It stood out. It was different than the Serena we have seen for years.
Don’t assume the worst about her on this. It’s equally possible that Williams’ issues are emotional. People can be emotionally rung out and it can look like this.
Of course, I’m just guessing, too. It looked so disturbing, though, to see the strongest face of women’s sports in the world lose her senses and coordination like that, and to apparently not even know it was that bad.
Whatever the reason for her condition, Williams shouldn’t have taken the court like that. If she didn’t know how disoriented she was, then what about her support group, her team, even Venus? Her own coach has been quoted as saying he hadn’t seen her for two days before that doubles match.
It’s just so hard to know what’s going on in the personal life of these people. For example, there are reports out of London that Andy Murray’s terrible play Wednesday might have been related to a fight he had with his girlfriend right before the match. Murray was reportedly cursing on court, looking to his box and saying, “Five minutes before the f—— match” and “Shut the f— up.”
Who really knows? These athletes have personal lives beyond serving as our personal entertainment.
Now, if Williams’ issue is something that needed to be drug-tested for, then there needs to be some sort of consequence for that. People paid for those tickets to see her, and if they didn’t get a match because of something like that, then there needs to be a suspension. The WTA tour needs to investigate this, but I’m reluctant to say that too loud because it is not my first thought.
I do think we need some sort of explanation, when all-time greats are so publicly expressing doubts, and one of the strongest people we’ve ever seen could barely stand up. For some reason, the viral-illness thing just doesn’t ring true. It sounds too intentionally vague.
Williams looked emotionally rung out during the French Open, too. And by the start of Wimbledon, I was already wondering if she was having issues with apathy about the game, hitting at just the wrong time as young stars are emerging and challenging her. Genie Bouchard is now in the Wimbledon final, one win from becoming a new, young superstar. She and Simona Halep lead yet another generation to challenge Williams.
At 32, is she really up for another years-long fight?
Now, Williams has brought on the suspicions about her. In the past, she has had so little interest in tournaments that aren’t majors that she would pull out at times citing questionable injuries. A few years ago, she said she cut her foot stepping on broken glass at, or in front of, a restaurant in Germany. Williams’ take on the story was inconsistent, and it was beyond belief that no one recorded it on a cellphone, posted it on Twitter, or stepped up to even say they had witnessed it.
So now she was fumbling around, unable to play tennis yet taking the court at Wimbledon. People have questions, and that is fair.
“I find it distressing,” Navratilova told espnW. “I think virus, whatever they’re saying it was, I don’t think that was it. I think it’s clear that’s not the case.”
No. Nothing is clear yet.