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.