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.

 

About gregcouch

I can talk tennis all day long, and often do. And yet some of the people I talk to about it might rather I talk about something else. Or with someone else. That’s how it is with tennis, right? Sort of an addiction. Sort of a high. I am a national columnist at FoxSports.com and a FoxSports1 TV insider, and have been a columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times. In 2010, I was the only American sports writer to cover the full two weeks of all four majors, and also to cover each of the U.S. Masters series events. I’ve seen a lot of tennis, talked with a lot of players, coaches, agents. I watched from a few rows behind the line judge as Serena rolled her foot onto the baseline for the footfault, a good call, at the 2009 U.S. Open. I sat forever watching a John Isner marathon, leaving for Wimbledon village to watch an England World Cup soccer game at a pub and then returning for hours of Isner, sitting a few feet from his wrecked coach. I got to see Novak Djokovic and Robin Soderling joke around on a practice court on the middle Sunday at Wimbledon, placing a small wager on a tiebreaker. Djokovic won, and Soderling pulled a bill out of his wallet, crumpled it into his fist and threw it at Djokovic, who unwadded it, kissed it, and told me, “My work is done here.’’ And when Rafael Nadal won the French Open in 2010, I finished my column, walked back out onto the court, and filled an empty tic tac container with the red clay. I’m looking at it right now. Well, I don’t always see the game the same way others do. I can be hard on tennis, particularly on the characters in suits running it. Tennis has no less scandal and dirt than any other game. Yet somehow, it seems to be covered up, usually from an incredible web of conflicts of interest. I promise to always tell the truth as I see it. Of course, I would appreciate it if you’d let me know when I’m wrong. I love sports arguments and hope to be in a few of them with you here. Personal info: One-handed backhand, serve-and-volleyer. View all posts by gregcouch

2 responses to “FRENCH OPEN Dominance Done: Serena Williams Loses More than a Match

  • sarah godwin

    Perhaps Greg Couch forgot that just a few short weeks before the French Open, Serena Williams withdrew from Madrid because of injury. Serena said she only won the Next tournament she played in, the Italian Open, because of sheer adrenaline.

    Clearly Serena was nursing injury at the French Open, despite what one of her coaches said. Serena was also bigger than she was at the French Open last year. If Serena heals, rests, practices, and gets back to her fittest weight, she should be ok for the rest of the Majors.

    Btw, if Sharapova could beat Garbine, Serena sure could! And “fear” has nothing to do with it. Serena Williams has won 32 Major Championship Titles – starting from the time she was just 16 years-old! Serena clearly wins via her prodigious SKILL!

  • sarah godwin

    Oh, and Serena Williams is great on clay! She would have won the French Open more often had she not been cheated and villified there – and thus was emotionally compromised at that venue!

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