Category Archives: Serena Williams
Serena Williams is traveling in time, chasing the past. It’s all about history for her now. But that’s not new. What was new from the Australian Open was that the present and the future have decided to finally start chasing her. And that came with an assist from the past.
They’ve all decided to stop cowering in the corner in fear of Williams and start fighting her back.
I’ll get back to that in a minute. With her 19th major title Saturday, when she beat Maria Sharapova 6-3, 7-6 (7-5), Williams passed Chris Evert and Martina Navratlova on the all-time list. Steffi Graf is the next, and final, goal with 22. (No one seems to count Margaret Court).
Is Williams the greatest player of all time already? If you look at video of Evert, you see that she wasn’t even playing the same game that Williams is. The racquets are different, the strings are different. And the training and body types match the equipment. It’s like asking who’s better: a badminton player from the 1980s or a tennis player from the 2010s?
Still, I’m going with Williams as second best and Graf as No. 1. Graf won more majors (22-19), way more non-majors (85-46) and spent more than 65 percent longer at No. 1 (377 weeks to 226). Too much emphasis is put on today’s only measure, major titles, as the measuring stick through history. But in this case, the numbers hit me about right, with Graf ahead of Williams, but with time for Williams to catch up.
As Williams has gotten older, she has started thinking about her spot in history. She now talks openly about wanting to catch Graf. Williams is 33, and not as consistent in majors as she once was. But what came out of the Australian was this: While Williams is focused on Graf as her only challenger, the present has decided to join in.
Here’s what I mean: My biggest complaint about women’s tennis is that almost all the women play exactly the same game. Bash into open space. The end. No touch, no nuance, no style. It rarely works against Williams, with her great serve, strength, guts and athleticism, particularly when she cares, meaning the majors.
I’ve wondered for years why no one tries to slice the ball into Williams’ feet to see if she can get out of the way, rather than run something down. Or at least, why no one tries anything at all. ANYTHING! When plan A isn’t working, these women try Plan A. They don’t have a Plan B.
But we saw a much more gutsy approach in the semis from American teen Madison Keys — the future? —
AUSTRALIAN OPEN: No One Tells the Same Punchline 1,000 Times in a Row. You’ll Hear Tennis’ Classic Joke Again if Sharapova Wins
I’ll be honest and say I’m a little tired of the joke. It is actually a tennis classic, built into the fabric of the sport.
But every. . .single. . .time someone ends a long losing streak against another player, it’s the same line. Nobody beats Tomas Berdych 18 times in a row. That’s what we heard after he beat Rafael Nadal at the Australian Open this week. And when Andreas Seppi beat Roger Federer, ESPN ran the same joke on the scroll across the bottom of the screen.
Going into Saturday’s women’s final between Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova, Williams has won the past 15 times in their rivalry. I’m just going to warn you now, in case Sharapova wins. The joke is coming again. For most tennis writers, it writes itself on the computer.
It was a Vitas Gerulaitis original, though it has been misreported so many times that the truth of the slump he ended is now confused in oral history. He did not beat Bjorn Borg to end the streak. He never beat Bjorn Borg, period. But in 1980 at the Masters Gerulaitis ended an 16-match losing streak by beating. . .
Jimmy Connors. And he came into the interview room carrying a bottle of champagne, according to reports from the time, and said it in his self-deprecating celebration: “And let that be a lesson to you all. Nobody beats Vitas Gerulaitis 17 times in a row.”
The funny thing is, it was the start of Gerulaitis’ five-match win streak against Connors.
And it appears that Gerulaitis was right. According to the official ATP record book, which is not perfect, his final record against Borg was 0-16.
And according to Matt Cronin’s book “Epic” about the Borg-John McEnroe rivalry, after Gerulaitis made the joke that lives in tennis history, someone asked him if he had broken into the Big Three of Borg, McEnroe and Connors. Gerulaitis said, “I’ve always had this potential, but there aren’t three. There are the rest of us. Then there’s Bjorn.”
More honesty: When I started writing this column, I planned on asking that we finally retire that joke. Then, I started looking up some stuff about Gerulaitis. I’m remembering, laughing. I remember
Maria Sharapova has talked about her passion for fashion, and how she enjoys helping with the designs of the tennis dresses she wears, including the little black tennis dress. Last year, Glamour magazine called her clothes “saucy.” A few years ago, Forbes said she likes “tank dresses with kicky skirts.”
Who can argue with that? And who can forget Serena Williams’ catsuit? I was at the Australian Open a few years ago when Venus Williams explained that she had designed skin-toned underwear for a natural look.
Awkward? You bet. But on Wednesday, Eugenie Bouchard won her match at the Australian Open, and when she did her post-match interview on court for the crowd, she was asked to give “a twirl” to show off her dress.
It is now a fullfledged scandal, with Billie Jean King posting on Twitter that the request to twirl was “out of line. This is truly sexist. If you ask the women, you have to ask the men to twirl as well.”
Go ahead. Ask Roger Federer to twirl. Ask Rafael Nadal. Ask Andy Murray. You know what? They won’t do it.
Bouchard, and earlier Serena Williams, did because it’s part of women’s tennis.
And God bless King for all she’s done to set a path for girls, including my daughter, with Title IX and the women’s tour. But on this one, I’m calling BS. She’s coming off like Al Sharpton, looking for any opportunity — genuine or not — to push the cause.
Look, it was an uncomfortable request, yes. It’s an unfamiliar balance, too, that the tour is selling. Bouchard, 20, is one of the best tennis players in the world. But the truth is, if this is a serious issue of sexism, then it’s not about what some guy asked Bouchard to do to show off her dress.
If there is need to change, then the women’s tour needs to take a hard look at what the women’s tour is selling.
Sloane Stephens’ arrival was always a myth. That’s the cold truth. American tennis is so desperate for something to hold on to that Stephens was promoted from prospect to arrival to star even though none of that ever really happened.
That’s not her fault, though she seems to have believed in the Myth of Sloane And now, it’s too late to go back to being a prodigy.
She lost to Victoria Azarenka for the third year in a row at the Australian Open. This time, it was 6-3, 6-2 in the first round. And while people are openly wondering what went wrong with Stephens, I can tell you this:
Nothing went wrong. She has not gone backward. She is the same player she always was. She is just standing still, unable to climb the last step to the top that her current critics/former supporters pretended as if she had climbed two years ago. Why did they pretend? It was a sales pitch meant to help them, not to reflect on Stephens.
She is not a young quarterback who won the Super Bowl, but never went back. She didn’t win 20 games as a rookie Major League pitcher and then fizzle out. She has never won a tournament. Not a major, not a minor.
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.
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
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).
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
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.
I can’t tell you how bad I feel that this is what I missed:
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:
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.
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.