At the height of a longstanding feud or at the pinnacle of personal misfortune or frustration, a reality show starlet is apt to slip into her shiniest blouse, look straight into the confessional camera and declare, “I’m over it!”
Serena Williams is yet to top Andy Cohen’s ranking list of Realest Housewives, but the media was certainly anticipating that type of disclosure – doubling as mutual reassurance – during her pre-Wimbledon press conference. The top seed’s humorless rebuke of the notion that she had gotten over her French Open loss felt full of foreboding. How could the five-time champion play under a cloud of disappointment? Was she due for a third consecutive early loss at a Grand Slam event?
Questions like these root from the dangerous practice of linking frustration with lack of confidence. The best player in the world has not played her best on the biggest stages. Thus, her belief is at a deficit. For the typical player, even the typical champion, this logic might hold true.
Over the course of a 20 year career, Serena Williams has proven to be anything but typical.
The seventeen-time Grand Slam champion has played some her best tennis in the face of adversity. When her commitment to the sport was questioned, she won the Australian Open in 2005. When her fitness was questioned, she won it again in 2007. When a foot injury and pulmonary embolism combined and conspired to leave her bedridden, she tore through the 2011 summer hard court season and reached the US Open final. When she lost before the second round at a Slam for the first time in her career, she won the 2012 Wimbledon, Olympic, US Open, and Year-End Championships to cement her place as not only the best player of the last decade, but also the decade to come.
We have come to expect the unexpected with the younger Williams sister, but have clearly become comfortable with her casual domination of our sport. We have become spoiled by her displays of near-superhuman efficiency, demanding greater feats of brilliance as a result. Even as the surprising losses began to pile up, we saw her continued dismissal of closest competition and overlooked her confessions of fatigue. The loss to Garbiñe Muguruza might have been similarly excused had the Spanish youngster not decimated the defending champion 6-2, 6-2. In a rare moment on a tennis court, Serena Williams looked ordinary and, most worryingly, out of answers. We began to doubt.
It speaks to the American’s vast improvement on clay that we suspended disbelief over her results until the French Open. We reserved panic for Wimbledon, of all places. We feared an early upset at a tournament she has won 5 times played on a surface that most suits her game.
Her mood has remained ominous in press, but equally frightening has been her on-court presence during her opening two matches. The game that appeared hitchy and hindered in Paris has been ruthless and reliable in London. Against Anna Tatishvili and Chanelle Scheepers, she has hit nearly 25 aces and 60 winners, all with hardly an error to give credence to the doubt that stalked her through the spring.
On Saturday, she will the opportunity to come full circle on her up-and-down 2014 when she plays Alizé Cornet. The theatrical Frenchwoman won a drama-free semifinal encounter against Williams in Dubai. The match marked the first of the American’s three surprising losses of the year. Well as the World No. 1 has played in her last four sets, she faced little opposition and unheralded opponents. Has she done enough to get over her frustration? Have these wins helped overcome her disappointment? I suspect not, but also believe that she would not have it any other way. Because she doesn’t want to forget. She doesn’t want to get over it.
With the doubting voices at their loudest, the stage is set. The woman with nothing left to prove will try to do it all over again. As she stands defiantly against a turning tide, one thing has always been clear: a down Serena is never out.