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.’’
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.
But now, these losses are starting to look similar. Ivanovic won 4-6 6-3, 6-3 by coming right at Williams. Keep in mind, Ivanovic briefly was a No. 1 player after winning the French Open. And she beat Venus Williams while winning an Australian Open warmup, looking to attack again for the first time in years.
Against Serena, Ivanovic looked like a top-five player again, not fearing Williams’ serve – the best women’s serve in tennis history – but instead standing up close on the baseline, then stepping in and going for return-winners.
Ivanovic’ serve-yips were nearly entirely gone, too.
It did appear that Williams’ back hurt some. She never grabbed for it, or flinched or anything. But she was moving slowly, and was hitting 105-110 mph first serves instead of 120.
But in the face of Ivanovic’ strategy, Williams seemed to have no idea what to do. She tried swinging harder. Once, she tried rushing.
At this point in her career, Williams can’t count on her body being pain-free for long stretches.
I suspect Williams thought she could beat Ivanovic easily anyway. But in the past, Williams could almost always find another gear to pull out a match like this.
I don’t want to overstate this. Williams is still the best player in the world. She has won 17 majors and needs one more to catch Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert. She will bypass them. Catching Steffi Graf, who I consider the best player ever, at 22, is very much possible, too.
The women’s game now has no depth. The next generation is almost ready, but not quite (Williams loss last year to Sloane Stephens at the Australian was ENTIRELY because of injury.) But from this point, Williams’ fight into history won’t be as easy as we thought.
The path seemed so clear just a few months ago. Heck, a few days ago.