The once unyielding Serena Williams suffered a stunning defeat on the red clay tennis courts of Roland Garros in Paris this past Tuesday, losing in the first round of the French Open to the country’s own Virginie Razzano. The upset is bewildering, not just because the fifth-seeded American was on a 17-match winning streak coming into the tournament (with titles at both Charleston and Madrid under her belt), but Williams had never—repeat, never—lost in the first round of any Slam in 14 years on tour. A day later, this bit of tennis-insider trivia was made all the more distressing when her sister Venus Williams exited in the second round, halting yet another record: for the past 43 major tournaments that both Williams sisters were playing, at least one of them has made it to the third round, until now.
For tennis fans following along at home, the initial punch of the loss has likely passed—but the lingering sting is perhaps even more painful to endure: in the aftermath comes the realization that Serena may no longer be the saving grace for all that ails the women's tour anymore. And for some, that's a tennis-ball-size pill to swallow.
Few can argue that women's tennis is in a disconcerting state. Serena's loss, for example, is not the first eyebrow-raising exit in the first round of a Slam in the past year. Both Li Na and Petra Kvitova (the reigning French Open and Wimbledon champions, respectively) lost their opening matches at the U.S. Open last summer, while the champion of that tournament, Sam Stosur, flamed out in the next Slam, the Australian Open.
These losses are illustrations of what concerns many in the industry about the women's tour, which is that its champions are erratic, unable to log consistent wins day in and day out. (Victoria Azarenka is a recent exception, to be sure, but she comes with a caveat, to be addressed later.) But despite the seeming similarities to these upsets, Serena's ousting is a horse of a slightly different color.
For some time now, Serena has acted as a white knight for those exhausted by the tumultuous transitional state of the women's tour. Her reappearance is always greeted with bountiful optimism. And while clay has never been her best surface, her recent form made her a favorite to win Roland Garros—a position she's familiar with at the sport’s other three major tournaments. In fact, the tennis soothsayers often bequeath her with title predictions for virtually any Slam that she enters, regardless of her ranking. That's because, like Rafael Nadal, she is an unrelenting competitive marvel that refuses to lose just as much as she lives to win.
But such dogged competitive strength requires confidence, in both body and spirit. The 30-year-old (yes, Serena is 30!) has suffered from injury and illness, and the natural fatigue of age. When she seemed lost in the final against Stosur at the U.S. Open last year, we chalked it up to comeback jitters. When she then fell at the hands of little-known Ekaterina Makarova in the fourth round of the Australian Open in January, we merely scratched our heads (albeit, with vigor).
But in Paris earlier this week against Razzano, ranked No. 111 in the world, she clearly lacked the mental fortitude to close out the second set tie-break, rendering her nearly immobile for parts of the deciding set. Not even a classic Williams 11th-hour resurgence in the third set was enough to save the sinking ship. While partially an anomaly, the defeat still serves as a haunting sign of her newfound fallibility, much like Roger Federer's loss in the quarterfinals of the French Open just two years ago. It was then that Federer had an impressive Slam record in action, reaching 23 consecutive semifinals since 2004. That was cut short though (as was his stint as the No. 1 player in the world) by Robin Soderling in a shocking exit. Fans slowly had to accept that their king was slipping.
What remains different in this current example however is that the tennis world is largely displeased with the leaders that are lined up to secede Serena's reign. Kim Clijsters is beloved, but she’s eyeing an impending retirement after the U.S. Open; Caroline Wozniacki lacks fire, variety, and Slam titles; Maria Sharapova is often her own worst enemy when her back’s against the wall; and the aforementioned Azarenka, who has actually logged a fantastic year thus far with a 26-match winning streak and the Australian Open trophy, is usually met with lukewarm acceptance and aggravated complaints about her shrill, high-pitched grunt.
In fact, every time Azarenka was scheduled for a hotly anticipated showdown with Sharapova this year, previews were rife with myriad jokes alluding to their shrieking (Sharapova can strike a mean soprano note herself, too.). There is thus a sense that the leaders aren't taken as seriously as they should be, given their position at the top of the game. But we are, in fact, faced with a future tennis landscape that lacks the self-correcting force of one Serena Williams, and it seems that many of us are now emerging from a state of denial.
Despite this doom and gloom though, it must be said that there’s truly no ruling out Serena, even in the immediate future. She may have stumbled in Paris, but she could very well storm through the field in London in three weeks’ time. That is her nature, after all. And, as she’s pointedly discussed over the last year, she would like to leave London with two titles: the Olympics will be played at the All England Club just weeks after Wimbledon. But we must also accept that the days of automatically inking her name at the top of the bracket are over. For those who look at her former crushing dominance with wistful sighs, the thought is exceptionally deflating. But hopefully we'll reach acceptance of the players in her stead, and eventually the tour will thrive once again.