The queen has left the building.
On a manic Monday afternoon at Wimbledon, Serena Williams, the most dominant force in tennis today, suffered her first loss since February, ending a career-best 34-match winning streak and sending question marks flying over the future of the sport’s top-ranked player.
It was a shocking exit for Williams, who just a month ago won her 16th major at the French Open and had racked up an 80–3 record over the last 12 months, including Grand Slam victories at the U.S. Open and at Wimbledon last year.
But even with the title in Paris just a few weeks ago, there was little to salvage after a loss to the No. 23–ranked German, Sabine Lisicki, who is nicknamed Boom Boom because of her powerful yet inconsistent strokes.
“I couldn’t be more disappointed,” Williams, 31, said flatly near the end of her post-match conference in London. Pressed to explain the loss, Williams had few answers. “I really have to go back to the drawing board,” she admitted.
Did the absence of her sister, fellow phenom Venus Williams, contribute to Serena’s losing performance? (Venus snapped her own streak of 16 straight Wimbledon appearances when she pulled out with a back injury before the tournament.) Serena seemed to dismiss the idea. “If I can’t compete without [my family] here,” she said, “I really need to reevaluate my life.”
Still, in the six times Serena has played at a major without her sister, she has won just once, losing in the fourth round the other five times. If no Venus means no trophy for the little sister, that’s not a good sign.
Whatever the case, the drawing board may not be a bad place for Serena to visit. After all, she pulled off a hugely successful reboot 13 months ago after being dumped out of the French Open in the first round by a player ranked outside the top 100—perhaps her worst Grand Slam loss ever. She went to a French coach named Patrick Mouratoglou, who has been a major force in turning her career around (and her love life ... they’re rumored to be dating).
So what’s next for Serena? There certainly could be a bit of retooling in the Williams camp again.
“There’s huge room for improvement for me,” she said after the loss. “I definitely had my opportunities, and I didn't take them. You know, just have to know that going forward, if I want to be successful, if I plan on being successful, I'm never going to do it backing off. I have to play the game I can play. For me that's being more aggressive.”
Aggression has always been the name of the game for Williams, who has few rivals who can hit with her toe-to-toe. Lisicki is one of them, as are Li Na and Petra Kvitová, two players who remain in the ladies’ quarterfinals at Wimbledon. Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka, two other rivals, lost last week in London.
Yet a loss is a loss is a loss. This one suddenly brings a seemingly levitating, I-can’t-be-beat Serena back to earth. And at 31 years old, tennis can break the body down much faster, meaning Williams will have to be careful to avoid what has felled her sister later in her career: injuries.
“I have to play the game I can play. For me that’s being more aggressive.”
Serena has promised to play on, saying since winning the Olympics last year that she’d like to win gold at the Rio games in 2016. Chief rival Sharapova hasn’t beaten her in nine years, Azarenka has yet to win a big-stakes match against her, and players like Lisicki, Li and Kvitová are too inconsistent for their own good: Serena’s dominance is marked by a controlled approach and raw talent.
Nonetheless, today has proved that something in Williams’s game will have to shift as she enters another new phase of her career. Shorter points would help her: less movement means less effort means more energy for Grand Slam demands. A serve-and-volley Serena? How phenomenal that would be.
But while she’s smart enough to know when she needs to shake things up, it would not be wise to forget what is still true, even after today’s upset—Serena Williams is still the best.