REPORTING FROM MASON, OHIO – Serena Williams just didn’t want to be here. So just before her match with Sam Stosur Wednesday, she withdrew from the Cincinnati Open with what she called a “bit of an aggravation’’ and “not feeling excellent’’ and “a little swelling’’ in her big toe.
Later, pictures of her emerged on the web sitting in a roller coaster at the amusement park a few blocks from the tennis center. She also said she would likely make it to Kim Kardashian’s wedding Saturday.
Williams just didn’t want to be here. Is she hurt? Sure she is. Everyone in tennis is.
But Williams made a commitment to come here, and then showed up for one match – enough to avoid being fined for breaking her commitment – and then stuck it to the tournament, stuck it to the tour, stuck it to the ticket-buying fans.
Her appearance on the roller coaster was sort of a raised middle finger.
So who wins? Williams wins. The tour will do nothing to her. She owns the tour.
Who loses? Tennis fans, as always. They get such little respect. The tour said Williams would come. Williams said she would come. Fans bought tickets to see her.
Later in the day, Victoria Azarenka pulled out with a hand strain, and I asked her if it was a big issue now, or if the bigger issue was making sure she was ready for the U.S. Open.
“Both,’’ she said.
Last week, Jo Wilfried Tsonga took it another step in Canada, trailing Novak Djokovic a set and 3-0, and then pulling out because his arm hurt. He said he knew he couldn’t come back and beat Djokovic with one arm. And that was not just a measure of disrespect to fans, but also a sign of what kind of fighter Tsonga is not.
“I would have continued to play,’’ Williams said, when asked if she would have played on if her first round match had gone three sets. “I definitely would have continued to play. Always. . .
“But I don’t think this is a good time for me to take a big chance. I just don’t think that would be smart.’’
Not with the U.S. Open coming in two weeks.
This isn’t as simple as it seems. Williams is back after a year away with a foot injury and then blood clots in her lungs. She just returned to the tour in June and her body isn’t used to the beating.
She had played seven matches in the previous eight days. She seemed to be lacking motivation in her first round match here, and afterward someone asked her if she was worried about overplaying.
“Yeah, I’m going to have to figure that out,’’ she said. “I definitely don’t want to overdo it. My main goal right now is obviously to do well.
“And nothing against Cincinnati or Toronto or the Stanfords that I played, but this is all preparation. Everyone is preparing for the U.S. Open. So I have to be smart and make sure it’s not too much.’’
I’ve blamed the tour before for having too many demands on the players, too many mandatory tournaments. As a result, for the past few years, Williams has shown up at non-majors and lost on purpose, or just invented injuries to avoid fines for not playing.
But since Wimbledon, Williams has played, as she said, Stanford, Toronto and Cincinnati. And on the women’s tour, those are not mandatory events. The rules get confusing, but in the end, she signed up for those three tournaments on her own.
And now she just pulled the cord.
After losing in the fourth round at Wimbledon, Williams dug in to get ready for the Open. She has won two non-majors in a row, which has meant a lot of practice time, a lot of matches.
For years, she has tried to keep her schedule down and her mind fresh. And I think she just didn’t feel like playing anymore, and wanted to be fresh for the Open. That’s understandable.
So Williams is the most divisive athlete in American sports, and this withdrawal will fit perfectly into that. If you don’t trust her, you have evidence that you’re right: She gave her word and then left. If you believe in her, then you can understand what she’s doing: She has been playing way more than her body is used to, and the U.S. Open is coming.
Either way, it’s true. But Williams is the one who chose to come to Cincinnati. She didn’t pull out because of anything connected to her health or her blood clots. She gave her word to tennis fans, and it should take more than “a little swelling’’ in the big toe to break it.