Category Archives: Serena Williams

WIMBLEDON: One Player Still Scared of Serena Williams: It’s Serena Williams

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Serena Williams’ fear factor isn’t gone. It has just found a new victim. She isn’t scaring other players anymore. Instead, she’s scaring herself.

It happens. Your name, your history, your age, your reputation, your legacy. It can pile up and be frightening This is my take, anyway, from watching her lose 1-6, 6-3, 6-4 Saturday to Alize Cornet in the third round at Wimbledon.

That makes three majors this year, and Williams hasn’t even made it to the quarterfinals of any of them. She has a serious problem, and deep down, she realizes it. Most likely, that’s what’s scaring her.

After losing at Australia, somehow it slipped out that she had an injury and almost didn’t play. At the French? Well, that’s her worst surface. At Wimbledon?

Sorry, no more excuses. Not there, where Williams has won five titles and Cornet is still figuring out how to play on grass.

What stood out about this match was Williams’ complete lack of joy, even when things were going well. Never one smile, never even an upbeat hint of body language. There was emotion, anger, near tears. Williams looked as if she just did not want to be there.

That might be the scariest thing of all.

This is a stepladder going down for Williams. The shocking losses the past year have built up and gradually led everyone, Serena and the other players on tour, to the next step. The message is this: Serena can be beat. Over the past few months, we saw her opponents start to believe. Williams’ ability to bully was fading.

But in this match, it looked as if Williams had taken another step down. It is not just that her opponents believe they can beat her, but also that Williams is afraid to lose.

Martina Navratilova used to talk about this as she got older. She’d say that younger players could swing away without fear, that they didn’t grasp how big things are or what could go wrong.

Even Roger Federer, who, at 32 is the same age as Williams, said on ESPN Saturday that when you get older, the losses seem to be bigger. The important thing, he said, is that you continue to believe that the outcome of your matches is in your hands, on your racquet. Not on your opponents’. He said he feels that way and is sure Williams does, too.

I think Williams is grappling with this entire formula. Part of her still seems to think that sooner or later, she will win these matches. But part of her can’t figure out why her opponents aren’t eventually buckling.

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WIMBLEDON: Sloane Stephens Loses in 1st Round. Hype was Wrong, Unfair

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Sloane Stephens isn’t living up to expectations. First there was the loss to Simona Halep in the battle of Generation We-Got-Next at the French Open, and on Monday she lost to Maria Kirilenko 6-2, 7-6 (8-6) in the first round at Wimbledon.

Just 17 months ago, she beat Serena Williams at the Australian Open. Now, while doing well in several majors, she has never even won a pro tournament at any level.

What is wrong with Sloane Stephens? There are things for sure, things that make me wonder if she can be a major champion. But she’s still in the development stages of her career. And the narrative about her shortcomings is revolving around a timetable that was based on expectations that should never have been put on her in the first place.

The point is this: She is not living up to the hype and expectations, but it was the hype and expectations that were wrong.

Here is an example. Earlier this year, a writer at ESPN.com wrote about Stephens’ failure to live up to her hype, yet also ripped the “hype machine” over and over. The article said the goal of reaching greatness is made difficult by the public’s and media’s desire “to anoint.”

All great points, except for one thing: When Stephens had beaten Williams in Melbourne, that same writer wrote that “Sloane Stephens is ready” and “She may not be ready yet to be favored to win a slam, but that doesn’t mean she’s not ready to win one.”

No, she wasn’t ready. She still isn’t. We don’t know if she ever will be. I’ll get into that in a minute. But whose hype was she failing to live up to, anyway?

Even at the time, and shortly after, I warned people not to make too big a deal out of that win over Williams, as Williams’ back was so hurt so bad she could barely move. Stephens’ arrow was pointing up, though.

Now, she has flown too high on borrowed wings, to steal a phrase. And the media desperation to always find something new, something fast, something first, has only threatened her career. We overhype these kids, and they aren’t ready for it. Adults aren’t ready for it, either, by the way.

But Donald Young and his parents did not need to hear, when he was a little kid, that John McEnroe thought he’d be the next, well, John McEnroe. It threw off everything and it has taken Young a decade to get his head on right.

Michelle Wie won golf’s U.S. Open Sunday, and is one of the most

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WIMBLEDON: Retaliation for Crip Walk? Lisicki Gets Honors over Serena Williams

Sabine Lisicki reached the Wimbledon final last year. Officially, that’s why she was selected to play the opening women’s singles match Tuesday at the All England Club.

I wish I believed that’s the main reason they chose her. It’s only suspicion, based on years of anecdotal evidence, that tells me Lisicki was picked partly because of last year, but partly because she is blonde. She is white. She is pretty.

And also because of this: She did not do the Crip Walk on Centre Court.

Is this payback against Serena Williams for her celebratory dance after crushing Maria Sharapova for the Olympic gold medal at Wimbledon in 2012? After all these years, Wimbledon and the Williams sisters still are not a comfortable fit. Even if this snub is just accidental, Wimbledon officials are proving yet again to be too stubborn to move up a few generations and too oblivious to note how it looks. And how it hurts tennis.

Whatever it is, Williams hasn’t complained. The first match at Wimbledon traditionally goes to the defending champ. It’s just an honorary thing, but the little things still carry big messages. The problem is, last year’s champ, Marion Bartoli, has retired. So officials just had to pick someone, like the previous year’s winner (Williams), the No. 1 ranked player (also Williams) or, yes, the loser from last year’s final (Lisicki).

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Sabine Lisicki

They could have put anyone in that match, really. The inspired choice would have been Venus Williams. She is the queen of Wimbledon, but she’s getting old and has physical issues and isn’t going to win another title. What a great chance to honor her one more time. And if not Venus, then Serena, who also has meant so much to the place and the sport. Frankly, it would have sent a good message about Wimbledon, too.

Instead, they picked the young, blonde and white.

Race is always the undeniable undercurrent with the Williams sisters and tennis. It feels as if sexism is involved, too, as blonde gets too much emphasis. A few years ago, Gisela Dulko and Maria Kirilenko were inexplicably put on Centre Court one7 day. Eventually, TV rights holder BBC explained it, saying that appearance on TV is a factor in these decisions.

But with this latest decision, it feels more like continued bickering between Williams and Wimbledon.

“I can’t figure it out yet,” Williams said. “Maybe one day I’ll figure it out.”

No, she didn’t say that on Friday, when Lisicki was given the match. She said it in 2011, after she and Venus were both moved to an outer court, Court 2, on the same day. A year earlier, the Queen of England was coming to Wimbledon for the first time in 33 years. Williams was excited, and talked openly and publicly about how bad her curtsy was. She said she’d been practicing it, and she demonstrated. She wanted to play in front of the Queen. Next thing you knew, on the day of the Queen’s appearance, Serena was put out on Court 2. Centre Court had Brit Andy Murray, No. 1 Rafael Nadal, and also, Caroline Wozniacki, who was. . . Young, blonde and white.

That still seems to be what Wimbledon thinks tennis looks like. It is the most beautiful tennis venue, and feels as if it’s a tennis museum. They still prefer players to wear all white. And while Wimbledon doggedly preserves the old time feeling of tennis, it doesn’t seem to grasp that without taking action, that also preserves an ugly underbelly of the sport’s history. Continue reading


FRENCH OPEN Dominance Done: Serena Williams Loses More than a Match

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This one mattered. You try not to make too much out of one tennis match, but Serena Williams’ blowout loss to Garbine Muguruza in the second round of the French Open really seemed to have a lasting meaning.

To me, it meant this: Williams is never going to dominate women’s tennis again.

You expect your champions to be at their best in the biggest moments when they can be. That’s what Williams had done for years, playing great in majors and trying only intermittently the rest of the time.

But Wednesday’s blowout loss was something new. In the big moment, Williams won just four games, the fewest she had ever won in a major.

A 20-year old top prospect is still supposed to be intimidated by Williams, by the moment, the surroundings, the power. Instead, Muguruza, who is ranked No. 35, won 6-2, 6-2, while hitting the ball harder than Williams. She also never showed any fear or intimidation. At the Australian Open in January, it was Ana Ivanovic – who I believe will win this French Open – outhitting Williams. Ivanovic, who had gone a few years without having shown one bit of mental fortitude, never showed fear at facing Williams.

Is there anyone left who is still scared of Serena Williams, other than Maria Sharapova?

Williams is still the best player in the world, and still has the highest ceiling on any given day. She will win more majors. But I don’t see her winning five more to catch Steffi Graf.

Other players are hitting it just as hard as Williams now, and they aren’t scared. And in this match, Williams wasn’t moving fast enough to plant her feet or get in position. Muguruza won by throwing the bigger punches, and by hitting right at Williams, who wasn’t quick enough or agile enough to get out of the way.

You see something similar on the men’s tour, too, where mid level players are figuring out that the way to beat Rafael Nadal or Roger Federer is to grip it and rip it. It forces both of them to play at their best or lose.

And after the match Wednesday reporters kept trying to get Williams to explain what had happened, and she just said “I don’t know.’’

“I don’t know.’’

The talk was about the historical aspects of both Williams sisters losing on the same day early in the tournament. It’s true, that rarely happens. But a little honesty here: That’s only because Serena rarely loses early in a major.

Venus, who lost to another prospect, actually cannot be upset anymore. At 34, she can lose to anyone. She still can beat anyone on a good day, too. But with her Sjogren’s Syndrome, an autoimmune disease that steals her energy, her body just doesn’t do what she wants it to do anymore. Maybe age is playing in now, too. And when she can’t count on her body, that beats up on her mind.

What’s newly evident at this French Open is with Serena. She isn’t invincible anymore.

“I’m going to go home and work five times as hard,’’ she said, “to make sure I never lose again.’’

Not long ago, that would have been enough.

There’s a case to be made that I’m wrong. The slow clay at Roland Garros has always been Serena’s worst surface. On Wednesday, with the sun gone, the clay played even slower. That took away some of Williams’ power.

And she lost easily and early in 2012, too, and then won four of the next six majors. So what makes me think that won’t happen again?

It’s possible. But she has lost her bully-factor. She said her loss was “just one of those days.’’ It’s true that sometimes, especially as you get older, your body just might not feel right one day here or there. But there have been too many of “those days’’ for Williams lately – including last year when Sabine Lisicki outmuscled her at Wimbledon – to count this as fluke.

It seems strange to say this, but the bully-factor matters just as much in tennis as it does in, say, boxing. Maybe even more in some ways. And when it’s gone, it’s gone. The only place Williams might still have it will be on the grass at Wimbledon. We’ll see.

From here, it’ll still be impossible to go into majors other than the French without predicting a Serena victory. On any given day, she’ll still be the favorite. But there will be fewer and fewer freebies for her, when an opponent lies down before the first point. That means more work, more grinding for Williams, who’s 32. It means fewer wins when you’re having “one of those days.’’

Well, she says she’s going to work five times as hard. That surely sounded scary to Sharapova, anyway.

 


Maui Vacation Refreshing. Davis Cup, Fed Cup Stale

This is where I live, in Chicagoland: 20140217_165553-1

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So this is where I went for a while, to Maui: 20140227_182652

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I can’t tell you how bad I feel that this is what I missed:

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Yes, Serena Williams and Sloane Stephens, the two best American women, representing the U.S. in Federation Cup play against Italy. You can see it clearly right there in the ad.

And it wasn’t just that, but also the whole national team season of Fed Cup and Davis Cup. I missed Switzerland against Serbia in Davis Cup, too. Imagine that: Roger Federer vs. Novak Djokovic.

I missed it all.

OK, so tennis fans already know what I actually missed:

Nothing.

It was just after the Australian Open, and Djokovic pulled out. He was criticized, all but called a traitor, so Serbia lost. Williams and Stephens pulled out, too, so the U.S. lost to Italy’s best. No, that isn’t right. A bunch of backup Americans lost to a bunch of the Italian backups’ backups.

And what did that prove exactly?

Meanwhile, fans had already bought tickets based on the marketing of Serena and Sloane. And fans can’t just pull out. Their money was locked in on a bait-and-switch. I’ve written before that tennis fans need a Bill of Rights, but I’ll get back to that some other time.

Here’s the thing: I don’t blame Williams, Stephens or Djokovic for pulling out. Why on earth would anyone play these things anymore?

The International Tennis Federation has rendered Davis Cup almost entirely irrelevant because it is so out of touch with the times. I’m sorry, but Bill Tilden vs. the Four Musketeers has come and gone.

Tennis is already an international head-to-head event every week all year long. The only thing the ITF has going as a carrot to lure top players to Davis Cup now is that it can guilt them into doing it.

This is just such an easy fix. Tennis can turn these things into two-week World Cup events. Bring all the countries together in one session in one place, play matches two out of three sets, and turn it into a tournament.

I’ve railed on this before, and an ITF official told me it wouldn’t work because there are countries whose entire tennis federation budget comes from low-level Davis Cup ties. Even Argentina, I was told, got its entire puny $2 million a year budget that way.

Fine. Then let the lower levels play things the way they are now in an attempt to qualify for the World Cup of Tennis. There has to be some way to make this interesting in a modern era. If you’re trying to grow the game, and add fans, you can’t do it with such a complicated event.

Who wants to follow a season that runs one week now, one week in a few months, one week a few months after that, with losers splintering off into multi-tiered loser brackets along the way?

No one has that kind of an attention span anymore.

But if you put the top countries together in a World Cup, then you can cut out two weeks from top players’ schedules. Twice that, actually, when you consider all the travel and practice time that would be saved.

Players are always complaining about the season being too long. And it is grueling. With a World Cup of Tennis, you shorten the season and more importantly:

You have an event that fans could really get behind. It would be seen as another major. Players could rest with the extra time off, and would have to give up only two weeks a year for Davis Cup. They’d do it. And general sports fans could understand it.

Which would make advertisers happy. Which would make TV happy.

Even better, tennis could actually use some of the time saved to add something it really needs.

A major in Asia.

But whatever. The ITF thinks it knows better. And that’s why we got matches such as Roger Federer vs. some guy named Ilija Bozoljac and Stan Wawrinka vs. Dusan Lajovic to determine whether Switzerland or Serbia is better at tennis.

Really?

Maybe Serena and Sloane will be back in April when the U.S. plays France in a World Group playoff – loser’s bracket — with the purpose only of being in the winner’s bracket in 2015?

Don’t count on it. I’m thinking Williams is more likely to be in Maui.


AUSTRALIAN OPEN: From Valedictorians to Class Clowns, Here are Grades for the Year’s First Major

Maria Sharapova icing down during a match

Maria Sharapova icing down during a match

Stan Wawrinka, next banner up

Stan Wawrinka, next banner up

Genie Bouchard. Next.

Genie Bouchard. Next.

We got an inspirational new champion, a re-invented former champion, a few possible future champions and then, well, failure and theater of the absurd. Really, Australian Open officials? It’s OK to have players out there in 110 degree heat because people used to chase antelope in Africa?

WHAT?

So here are the final grades for the Australian Open, of valedictorians, teacher’s pets, class clowns and everything in between.

VALEDICTORIANS

LI NA: In a sport in need of mainstream attention, Li not only gives tennis something every sport dreams of – something to market to the massive population and economy of China – but also a post-championship match victory speech that goes viral. As a result, Li might be the most important player in the women’s game today, maybe even more than Serena Williams. Li was able to win the Australian Open without beating a top player, but that’s not her fault. Eight months ago, with her results failing and the Chinese media ripping her, Li nearly retired. Her work with new coach Carlos Rodriguez has helped the sport big time. Grade: A+

STAN WAWRINKA: Wawrinka’s championship was even more impressive than Li Na’s, considering the tougher competition he had to beat. He spent the past few years thinking he was never going to be able to break through the Big Four in men’s tennis, but finding honor in getting up after every defeat to keep fighting anyway. And then he took down Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal. You can’t win two major tennis matches by fluke. He earned this. Grade: A+

TEACHER’S PETS

ANA IVANOVIC: The game has just been waiting for her to get her nerve back. And she came out firing again. She beat Serena Williams, not to mention Sam Stosur, and showed that she’s perfectly capable of being a top 10 player again and a threat to win another major. . .if she keeps believing. Grade A-

ROGER FEDERER: New racquet, new coach (Stefan Edberg), new, aggressive gameplan. Same results? Federer lost to Rafael Nadal again. Well, that is a completely unfair analysis. Federer is finally doing all the right things. It is the only way he’s going to win another major, and he finally seems to realize that. It’s not just that he’s coming to the net, but that he’s trying to step into the ball and attack. Sure, he waffled on it against Nadal. This is all new to Fed. It was a GREAT first step. I was starting to watch him and wonder who he’d lose to next while slicing and dinking. Now, I can’t wait to see him. He still can’t beat Nadal, but he now is a threat to win another major or two. He still has game. He even has a legit shot at the French Open. Grade: A

DOMINIKA CIBULKOVA: Hard to know if Cibulkova just changed her career, but remember this: She came into the Australian Open as a known choker. She left with wins over No. 3 Maria Sharapova, No. 6 Aga Radwanska and No. 11 Simona Halep before reaching the final. Forgive her for some nerves early in her first major final. That happens. The thing about women’s tennis is that there are only a couple of superstars. The women’s players are sort of cookie-cutter, and if someone with talent and nerves of steel comes along, then it’s going to take a top player playing well to beat her. Hope is that this won’t be Cibulkova’s Melanie Oudin-moment, and that she’ll have found her nerve for the long run. Grade: A+

ACED THE CLASS, FLUNKED THE FINAL

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Aga Radwanska plays brilliantly, wins

Aga Radwanska plays stupidly, loses

Aga Radwanska plays stupidly, loses

AGA RADWANSKA: She might have played the match of the tournament in beating Victoria Azarenka. She was everywhere on the court, with just enough power. Azarenka was flustered and confused. And the media hailed Radwanska as a genius for that match. But in her semifinal match against Dominika Cibulkova, Radwanska played as if she had had a lobotomy. I’m not even sure Radwanska tried. When things weren’t working, she kept doing them. There was no hint of strategy. This is the problem with the almost-greats. You see incredible things, and then you are reminded why they don’t reach the mountaintop (see Tomas Berdych). Same thing happened with Radwanska at Wimbledon. So what’s the grade? Well, I think she’s good enough to win a major, and marketable enough to be a star. And that semifinal match was so bad, I can barely remember the Azarenka match. Grade: F.

TOMAS BERDYCH: He reached the semifinals, and then smiled and credited his team when he was told that he had become the only current player outside the Big Four to reach the semis of all four majors. Hey Tomas, that’s not really a compliment. Another way of putting it: You are the only player on tour to reach the semis of all four majors, but never win one. Berdych is adding topspin to his forehand, which is being credited for his recent improved play. I don’t know about that. That flat forehand was the reason he was winning matches. The way he fell apart briefly against David Ferrer in the quarters was shocking. Lost his nerve at moments against Stan Wawrinka in the semis, too, but in hindsight, it’s hard to mark him down too far for losing to the champ. One more thing: there was nothing wrong with Berdych’s much-criticized prison-cell shirts, other than his team was wearing them, too. Grade: B

DAVID FERRER: When he lost to Berdych in the quarters in what I’m calling the Bridesmaid Bowl, he lost his unofficial title as best player never to win a major. He pushed the line judge, too, but at least he isn’t hitting balls into the stands at crying babies anymore. Still fighting hard. Still stuck in the land of almost. Maybe Wawrinka’s win will show him what’s possible. Grade: C

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AUSTRALIAN OPEN: Serena loses to Ivanovic? Once-in-a-Lifetime Losses Adding up for Williams

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The truth about Serena Williams is that these inexplicable, once-in-a-lifetime, fluky, never-happen-again losses keep happening again. They’re starting to pile up.

Williams is still the best player in the world, but with her loss to Ana Ivanovic in the fourth round of the Australian Open, something changed. A week ago, the talk was that Williams was so much better than the rest of the tour that she might win all four majors this year. She might be the best ever.

Then, she lost to a woman, talented as she is, who has spent the past few years crying after every loss, too scared to toss the ball over her head for a serve.

When Williams lost to Sabine Lisicki at Wimbledon last year, I said it was the first time her mind and body let her down at the same time. Now, it has happened twice, albeit with a U.S. Open title in between.

There are real issues for Williams. She’s 32, and it’s starting to show. It was crafty after the match how news of her back pain accidentally – I should say, “accidentally’’ with air-quotes – leaked out. Williams’ coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, said something. Then, when faced with the question, she declined to let it take away from Ivanovic’ win, yet did manage to say her back was so bad she almost didn’t even play.

That’s not much of an excuse anymore. A body starting to become unreliable, to break down, doesn’t seem like a once-in-a-lifetime thing for a 32-year old who lost in the Australian Open last year because of another injury.

What we’re starting to see is this: Williams isn’t able to physically dominate and intimidate everyone the way she used to. And when she isn’t able to do that, she doesn’t seem to know what to do.

As the injuries add up, and she starts to run slower, that will become more problematic. More and more, the bullying thing is going to start to fade.

Maybe we saw signs of that two years ago in the U.S. Open final against Sam Stosur, too. I just didn’t recognize it at the time because it was so stunning seeing any weakness in her. Remember when Williams sat there during a changeover berating the chair ump like a little kid getting worked up, nearly crying while saying, “You’re a hater. You’re unattractive inside.’’

Ana Ivanovic

Ana Ivanovic

Stosur has been known to fold mentally, but she’s an incredibly muscular athlete who stood up to Williams physically that day. And Williams crumbled. At Wimbledon, Lisicki, known for her power and inconsistency, pounded on Williams.

But those seemed like flukes. Great athletes putting it together one time.

On Saturday? Well, put it this way: The first three times I talked with Ivanovic, a few years ago, she was crying after losses. Yet somehow, a woman who hadn’t shown one bit of mental fortitude in years, walked out on a court believing in her heart that she could beat Williams. And she could do it by overpowering her.

That’s a big deal. Roger Federer is running into it now, too. More often than not, when tennis’ dominant players take the court, the match is already over. The person on the other side of the net just doesn’t believe enough to do it. Now, opponents believe they can beat Federer, and some of them are doing it.

To be honest, going into the Australian Open, I thought the only player who believed she could beat Williams was Victoria Azarenka. Continue reading


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