Serena Williams Loses a Stunner in a Way She Never Has Before
Tennis is a game designed to thwart inevitability. You may have a dominant serve that delivers steady aces, but, after you’ve won a few points, the game will end, and your opponent gets a turn. You may win the first six games, but, if you do, there is no seventh: you are awarded a set, and the next set begins at 0–0, giving your opponent another chance. If you are a professional tennis player, and your opponent has just taken a set from you, and has the crowd chanting her name, deepening her confidence and determination, you can ask for a bathroom break and head to the locker room for what may seem to fans like an eternity, and there you can search for something—focus? steadier nerves?—and hope that the passing minutes start to get to the player left idling out there on court. That, at least, appeared to have been Maria Sharapova’s strategy against Ashleigh Barty the other day at the Australian Open. It didn’t work.
Still, Serena Williams, up a double-break, leading 5–1 in the third set and serving for the match—a quarter-final match, in a Grand Slam? The ending is inevitable, and at hand. Except it wasn’t: Williams double faulted, had her serve broken soon after, and never won another game. Karolina Pliskova, of the Czech Republic, won instead, 6–4, 4–6, 7–5, and advanced to the semifinals. Williams will jet home without a twenty-fourth Grand Slam singles title, which would tie her with Margaret Court for the most ever. It’s a title she desperately, and understandably, wants. If Williams had lost a match in such a fashion in a major before, after being so far ahead and so close to victory, no one I spoke to or heard from could remember it.
Williams was moving sluggishly as the match began, lunging for balls that she couldn’t manage to get her feet under, and, several times, finding herself out of position: too far back behind the baseline, where she seldom roams, or caught inside the court near the service line. You never want to be there—unless you’re Serena Williams and you’re bolting forward to take a ball out of the air and swat a swinging volley, which is what she did when Pliskova was serving to close out the first set. But, in that case, Williams got to the ball just late, as it dropped below net height. She buried the ball in the bottom of the net, threw up her hands, and screamed. Soon enough, she was aced, and the first set was Pliskova’s.
Truth be told, Williams’s court coverage had not been all that great in the four matches she won in Australia to reach the quarter-finals. Especially in her prior match, against the world No. 1, Simona Halep, Williams seemed to be struggling to chase balls down in the corners, leading to rallies of five or six shots or more. Her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, said, after Williams’s gruelling, three-set victory over Halep, that her fitness was better than it had been last summer. Williams continues to work her way back from her pregnancy and a difficult delivery, and, at the age of thirty-seven, is playing élite-level tennis while mothering a one-year-old. Physically and emotionally, he said, she is “back to being Serena.” Watching that match courtside, though, between points, you could see that she looked winded, and you could hear it during rallies in her ball-strike grunt.
Williams has never won big matches because she can scramble. She’s won by having the best serve in the women’s game—hitting big and hitting her spots. (Her slider, when she hits it out wide, often arcs and spins irretrievably. She’s powerful, yes, but she’s more than that.) She’s won by getting a foot, or even two, inside the baseline to take an opponent’s second serve and send it back so flat and hard and deep that there’s simply no time for her opponent to do anything with the incoming ball. And, perhaps most importantly, she’s won because she brings it on the big points, the ones that matter—the deuce point that gain an advantage, say, and then the ad point that wins a break or secures a serve. That’s who she’s been. That’s what got her up a double break and serving for the match at 5–1.
But she got called for a foot fault on a serve that would have won the match. After serving again, and putting the ball in play, she appeared to roll her ankle, and lost the point. Then she double-faulted. After Williams had her serve broken, Pliskova held her serve. Williams then had another chance to serve out the match, but quickly went down 0–40 and, just like that, was broken again. Her lead was down to 5–4, with Pliskova to serve. But Pliskova didn’t do so with much steadiness or conviction, and Williams quickly had two more match points. Williams couldn’t find a way to win them—even when she was offered a second serve that didn’t reach seventy-five miles per hour. And then Williams got to see yet one more match point, and watch her forehand fail to clear the net. Two points later, it was five games all.
Williams, with the serve now hers, did not win a point, nor did she win any of the first three points as Pliskova served for the match. That’s nine points in a row, over the course of three games, that Williams lost, if you’re counting—and I was counting, having never seen her on the losing end of so many consecutive crucial points. She would find a way to stave off two match points, and the crowd stood and roared. They knew what she was capable of, knew that when a match was on the line she could will her way to the win. They were still standing, somewhat stunned and murmuring, as she packed her racquet bag and made her way slowly to the tunnel.