By Abigail Johnson
Sometimes there are no words, and at the same time there are far too many.
By her own admission, she hasn’t had a good season at all. Credit to her for winning titles while so below par. But her short stay in Paris is still a huge shock.
Serena Williams, World No. 1, defending champion, went down 6-2, 6-2 to World No. 35 Garbine Muguruza in the Roland Garros second round.
For Serena and her fans, is there any result that could be as painful as the one that took place earlier today? Believe me, it’s highly unlikely.
It was the Queen of the WTA, Serena Williams, chasing her 18th Grand Slam title, who was the crushing favorite in today’s clash against Spanish 20-year-old Garbine Muguruza.
While Serena has been the constant roadblock to every female player on tour in recent years, talented Garbi has been quietly making a name for herself. Despite being sidelined by injury for some months a year ago, Muguruza already had a WTA title in Hobart and three top ten wins to her name before this afternoon.
Despite Serena’s supreme dominance of the sport of tennis, this draw was still an unenviable task.
The contest took place on Court Suzanne Lenglen, in heavy conditions beneath grey skies. While this atmosphere wouldn’t benefit Serena’s game, Garbine was playing in the same conditions.
So, how? How? How did Serena Williams– the opponent-crusher, the untouchable –succumb to her Spanish opposition so swiftly? More swiftly in terms of games than she ever has in 288 Grand Slam matches?
There is no one answer. It’s a case of contributing factors, some of which we may not even be aware of.
Aga Radwanska, the World No. 3, is just one member of the tennis community to report that when Serena is playing at her best, it doesn’t matter what you do, or how well you play – you’re going to lose. And in Serena’s only previous meeting with Muguruza, she demolished her at the 2013 Australian Open, despite carrying an ankle injury.
Obviously Serena was far from her best today. She managed a terrible 29 unforced errors in the mere 64 minutes she spent on court. Her huge serve, one of her most lethal weapons, was virtually nonexistent. This was one component of her defeat.
But the fantastic play of rising Garbine Muguruza, was another. While Serena was bogged down with pressure, Garbine was free to swing around the court with no weight of expectation. While Serena made mistake after mistake, Garbine made all the right moves. She took advantage of all Serena’s faults, rather than seeing her immense opportunity and freezing up.
Staying focused on her game rather than the overwhelming situation she was in, she aimed to hit long, straight and powerful down the middle of the court, so as to keep Serena from dictating, making angles, and running her around the court.
Garbine stayed calm and held it together, while Serena fell apart. To summarize this stunning result as simply as possible, Serena played a bad match, and Garbine was amazing.
It doesn’t satisfy. It doesn’t satisfy Serena, and it doesn’t satisfy her supporters. It somehow doesn’t seem to provide enough explanation, and some may feel it doesn’t give Garbine enough credit.
But for the sake of simplicity, that’s the closest thing we have to a revelation. To an explanation. To the reason the women’s competition at the French Open just got turned upside down.
There are several questions surrounding or linked to this match, and I’m going to throw some out there for you to mull over.
So, Serena was playing badly – she flat out wasn’t with it. But why was she playing badly?
In the second set tiebreak of her 2012 first round loss to Virginie Razzano, which was also here in Paris, it was some rotten calls that threw Williams into a condemning state of emotional turmoil. And true, Muguruza was playing shots to perplex her.
But these struggles have been season-long. With the possible exception of Rome, every 2014 title run has been a heated battle for Serena. A battle with the person who can be her greatest ally, but also her own worst enemy: herself.
Is there some underlying issue?
Venus, another of today’s unfortunate casualties, is keeping her lips sealed if this is the case.
“Even if I had anything to say,” she stated in press as Serena fell, “I wouldn’t say it here.”
Another question applies not just to this Grand Slam tournament, but to all of them: Why do people enjoy the topple of the very top players?
Maybe you think that’s a stupid question. Excitement! Uncertainty! Something unusual! But here’s another take on it: Boring. Lower quality. Let downs.
One of the hardest things for a non-seeder to do is to follow up a big win. To stay consistent. I have no doubt that Garbine has the talent to take her far, here and elsewhere, but will she keep it together? Will Kristina Mladenovic? Will Guillermo Garcia-Lopez? More often than not, these players don’t.
There are the regular Premier or 250 events, and there are the Grand Slam finals. And sure, the next generation will have to rise at some point. However, surely the natural thing is to want those high-standard major finals which aren’t so common during the rest of the season.
Remember Wimbledon 2013? Hype and excitement built with each shocking upset in the women’s draw – but suddenly the final had arrived, and there was no one left. The result was an anti-climatic display in which Sabine Lisicki bottled on the big stage and lost easily to Marion Bartoli, playing some tennis she’d rather forget. Consequently, aside from Marion’s fairytale ending, the final didn’t live up to the high expectations that exist for a Wimbledon finale.
Don’t ever doubt the massive void Serena’s absence leaves in the game.
For Garbine, it’s an extremely winnable match against Venus’ conqueror – Anna Schmiedlova – who played a great match, but was ultimately gift-wrapped her three set win today.
For Serena? Well, read on.
…DID THEY SAY?
In the middle of the disbelief, amazement and uproar following their match, Garbine and Serena came out with some quotes to restore just a bit of order to whirling minds.
– On Serena’s post-match words to her: “She said that if I continue to play like this, I can win the tournament, and I say ‘I will try, I will try!’”
– On the surface: “In Spain we like so much the clay, so I feel really comfortable.”
– On her game: “I was really focused and I knew what I had to do on court… I was nervous but I said ‘Okay, be calm.’”
– On Serena: “She was my favorite player as a kid, and I watched her on TV growing up. When I practiced, I studied how Serena serves, how she plays a backhand. I saw like 100 videos of her.”
– On her match mindset: “I played her I think two years ago and it was so horrible, ‘cos I was so nervous, and I said ‘Okay, this time I’m not going to think that I’m playing against Serena; I’m going to do what I have to do.’”
– On her game: “I don’t think anything worked for me today, so, nothing really worked out. I don’t know anything, actually, that worked. …You can’t be on every day, and, gosh, I hate to be off during a Grand Slam. But it happens, you know. It’s not the end of the world, and it is what it is.”
– On Garbine: “She plays really well, obviously, and I’ve actually never seen her play like this. Hopefully she can keep it up, keep her form up and continue to play like this.”
– On how she feels: “Obviously I’m super disappointed and, you know, it’s hard. But, hey… I know for a fact I can play so much better than what I did today, so I mean, it’s a double edged sword.”
– On what she’s going to do now: “I’m going to go home and work five times as hard so I never lose again.”
Two years ago here in Paris, Serena used that shock defeat to Razzano as a springboard into months upon months of knockout dominance. The comforting knowledge for her supporters today is that she shows every intention of doing so again.
Garbine, following a wonderful performance, is the player into round three, and it is the World No. 1 who must book her flight home this evening. And although her game wasn’t great on her departure, her attitude certainly was.
I leave you with this:
Congrats 2 my opponent today. She did her thing. I'm proud of her. I wish her well. Until next time. There's always tomm & I will be ready.
— Serena Williams (@serenawilliams) May 28, 2014