French Open Fan Fare: Panicking With Serena

By Abigail Johnson

Tennis is a sport exploding with emotions. The thrill of victory. The agony of defeat. The pain each one of Ernests Gulbis’ obliterated racquets feels as it strikes the ground and bites the dust for the first and final time. You know the feelings. Every one of us – the fans, the supporters, the journalists, the tennis world – get swept up in the roller-coaster experience that makes the game what it is.

On Thursday, as I watched my favorite player Serena Williams play her second-round match at the French Open, I felt a different emotion: anger.

I wasn’t really angry with Serena. I wasn’t angry at her, either. What right have I? I am not Serena Williams. Sometimes, as fans, we can become selfish, forgetting that we have no direct involvement in the lives of the tennis players.

No. I was angry at what I saw.

I saw a 19-time Grand Slam champion choking on a freshly prepared meal. I saw Serena Williams in Panic Mode, which is namely an array of squeals, unforced errors, hairstyle adjustments, missed opportunities, rushed points, chokes, and simple shots produced so badly and carelessly and thoughtlessly that you simply do not want to watch.

I saw Anna-Lena Friedsam, a young player with no distinct weapons, coughing up double faults and errors at key moments. At the same time I saw Serena, the Queen of Capitalizing, simply refusing to take advantage of these gifts. And as I saw this, I recalled the all-too-many times I had seen Serena in Panic Mode, and the all-too-many times she had succumbed to it.

I was angry because this was no calm and controlled Garbine Muguruza across the net, nor was it even a Sabine Lisicki, crushing the ball on grass courts with damaging pace. This was a girl who could, frankly, just get the ball back.

I was angry at the waste this result would be.

We can often feel like we don’t have the right to criticize the tennis players. That’s good, because really, we don’t. Generally, we cannot do what they are doing (unless what they are doing happens to be an especially wild shank. Only then can we compare ourselves to the mighty Roger Federer.)

Yet Serena, while being human, is not just a professional tennis player–she’s the world No. 1. In the heat of a tennis match, tactics and logic and all else can fly out of the window. But surely, with the constant whirring of her mind and the myriad of breaks between points, she would be able take the time to remember who she was?

While she never completely snapped out of the struggle, miraculously, Serena did emerge ‘victorious’ on Court Suzanne Lenglen, 5-7 6-3 6-3. Her medals to show for it are 52 unforced errors and a bucket load of agonized shrieks.

Surviving her own onslaught, she lived to tell the tale of her woes. She expressed how she felt ‘more frustrated than relieved’, and how she ‘definitely didn’t think she could play worse than that’. Anyone who watched the error-fest would probably agree.

But somewhere at the end of that second set, when the match turned ever so slightly in her favor, Serena fought her inner villains and her increasingly confident opponent, and turned things around.

Initially, she did some self-coaching, ordering herself to “just stay calm and stay in it.”

To the error-infested Serena’s credit, she learned from past experiences. Motivation came into play, as she emphasized how she was “happy to get through” as she has “played some horrible matches and lost them.” Need we be reminded.

“I lost a couple of sets early on in Australia, and I thought about that and it kind of calmed me,” she said after the match.

Better late than never. She played an appalling match. But by the skin of her teeth, Serena survived.

So what does that mean for the rest of her tournament?

Before this tournament, I had this gut feeling that Serena was heading towards certain doom at Roland Garros. The game wasn’t quite there, and her composure was like a yo-yo. Add to that the elbow injury that ended her Rome campaign, and there was reason to be nervous.

Possibly you felt the same way, and equally noticed that her first-round struggles just days ago were played down behind the seductive scoreline. It’s exactly what happened last year, when Serena’s routine in numbers, yet wobbly in game victory over Alize Lim was disguised in match reports.

A further replay of last year looked on the cards as Serena dropped that nightmarish first set to Anna-Lena earlier. Exactly one year earlier, in the French Open second round and on a hauntingly familiar Suzanne Lenglen court, Serena was put out of her Panic Mode misery in less than an hour. Fast-rising Garbine Muguruza carried out a solid game plan to eradicate her from the competition.

However, this is not 2014. Midway through the match, Serena stopped freezing in fear of last year, and started to take lessons from it. On court on Thursday afternoon, in the most unconvincing way possible, Serena won three battles. She won the battle against her opponent, Anna-Lena Friedsam. She won the battle against herself. And absolutely crucially, she won her battle against the ghosts of last year.

That changes everything.

Despite the relentlessly high standards she sets for herself, Serena can now rest in the fact that she will not have to suffer the humiliation and hurt of last May. And she has cleared another obstacle she may not even know existed.

“One thing Venus always tells me is, ‘A win is a win, and as long as you can live to survive the next day, you can always improve.'”

History speaks in her favor. Her practices have been running smoothly. She’s arguably the greatest player in the history of the women’s game. An elbow injury may have neutralized her serve, but that is only one of her many weapons. A strong will and determination may just about cover that loss.

It is exactly what Serena will have when she comes up against Victoria Azarenka and her old accomplice Sascha Bajin in the next round.

But that’s another story…

Read more of Abigail’s tennis writing at The Tennis Obsessed.

6 Responses

  1. cjb
    cjb May 29, 2015 at 1:24 pm |

    Well – a fan’s view is necessarily always an outsider’s view. Actually you can have absolutely no idea what is/was going on in Serena’s head at any point in a match. None of us can.
    Perhaps it’s best to step back a bit and describe rather than project…

  2. Sabey
    Sabey May 29, 2015 at 3:35 pm |

    This is a well written and funny piece -as a Serena fan I can relate.

  3. Abigail
    Abigail May 29, 2015 at 3:49 pm |

    @ cjb – Description is all there, I believe 🙂 Everything is firmly based on quotes from Serena herself. That, combined with observation, produces the final result. Although as with all writing, it’s open to debate. If we all just churned out cold facts (and especially facts people can already see for themselves!), I guess half the world’s journalists would be out hunting for another job… Thanks for reading the piece!

    @ Sabey – Thanks for the comments! The Serena-fan life is definitely an interesting one 😉

    1. cjb
      cjb May 30, 2015 at 2:57 am |

      I suppose I mean describing and interpreting the performance without necessarily bringing in personal feelings or ‘projecting’ those feelings onto the player. And certainly, just cold facts are extremely boring.
      But then we all have different views –

  4. James
    James May 30, 2015 at 2:08 am |

    Nice article, Abigail. I loves me some Serena as well, but her clay season hasn’t been too promising. Opponents gain that slight edge that they don’t have on other surfaces, and Serena doesn’t seem quite prepared to battle it out like on other surfaces. It’s either there or it isn’t. That said, I’d love to see her run through an Azarenka / Stephens / Petkovic / Kvitova / Sharapova field to take the title!

  5. Adwoa
    Adwoa May 30, 2015 at 10:01 am |

    Great article. I think you really nailed it. I watched the match and thought to myself, what on earth is she doing, and I think the fact that she has only one at RG twice and has had such poor results previously has meant she has not been as well equipped to reach back in her mind to pull out good memories to help steady her when things get rough. I also have to stop myself from getting too angry and recognise that she is actually human and cannot win everything easily. Saying that I think this match was good for her, shows her she can play badly at RG and still win – a feeling I do not think she has had for a while.

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