After two hours and 50 unforced errors, Serena Williams’ first three months of 2016 came to an end after losing to Svetlana Kuznetsova, 6-7(3), 6-1, 6-2. The Russian veteran not only handed the World No. 1 her earliest loss in Miami since 2000 but also left the American title-less for the past four tournaments — a rarity by her lofty standards. Is there genuine reason for concern for Williams or are the reactions veering towards panic-mongering knee-jerk reactions? René Denfeld takes a look.
A last wave to the supportive crowd at her home event and Serena Williams left Stadium Court in Miami. By all accounts, the American didn’t waste a lot of time hanging around what is basically her backyard tournament after the loss, as she moved in and out of press in a heartbeat.
Whispers of questions already arose after Williams’ fairly nervy performance in the Australian Open final, particularly given the American’s stellar record in the seventh match at a major. The 34-year-old looked in great form throughout the entire fortnight in Melbourne but with the pressure and stakes rising in the championship and a 22nd title on the horizon, so did Williams’ tension. Particularly in the first and third set, several wild errors went hand in hand with unsuccessful net approaches, often aided by Angelique Kerber’s tenacious retrieving and acute angles. Most notably, however, the World No. 1’s footwork went into lockdown.
In Indian Wells, the American tried to outhit Victoria Azarenka right from the get-go — but not entirely dissimilarly to the final in Melbourne — it was footwork that let her down. Williams rarely got in position to employ any high-octane aggression properly and it was one of the rare instances when the she fell victim to completely overhitting of the ball. Compared to Melbourne, the American probably walked out on court with a totally different set of emotions affecting her play, particularly considering her dreadful experience at the same place, at the same stage, 15 years ago. Extrapolating everything, however, her error-strewn performance in the desert boiled down to nerves — even if the causes and origins might have been different.
Unlike urban myths (85,000 Google results for “Serena Williams Brute Force” anyone?) would have everyone believe, Williams’ game is not based on mere power. It revolves around tremendous athleticism, aggression — but rarely at the expense of control — and accurate movement and positioning to the ball. Once again, much like in some of her previous matches, the latter just went astray during her three-set defeat against Kuznetsova. While the Russian veteran is hardly a beacon of reliability, she was experienced enough to notice her opponent’s wavering level as well as subpar footwork and tidied up her own game after the first set to leave Williams tumbling.
So why is it that in 2016 the American’s nerves have been more at the forefront of her performances? There were a few tentative explanations making the rounds since Williams’ loss in Melbourne and another slew has been added since her matches against Azarenka and Kuznetsova — but two factors stick out, and they’re very much entangled with 2015.
Right at the start of her year 12 months ago, Williams hoisted the Daphne Akhurst trophy in Melbourne but in the run up to her 19th Grand Slam title, the American had been coughing her guts out. Williams played a great match against Maria Sharapova but she didn’t look healthy in the second week of Melbourne — in fact, she barely looked healthy or injury-free throughout much of the first half of 2015. During Indian Wells, she had to withdraw from the semifinals with a knee injury, while elbow issues flared up in Rome and Madrid and continued to be an issue throughout the year.
At last year’s French Open, Williams looked as though she should be in bed rather than on court, yet the World No. 1 soldiered on, won her third Roland Garros title and completed the second “Serena Slam” at Wimbledon a few weeks later.
In 2015, health and injury often provided the glass ceiling to the level of tennis the World No. 1 was able to produce — and with all due respect, Williams certainly didn’t always need to bring her very best tennis en route to her three major titles last year. Particularly at the French Open, it was almost a daily struggle for the 21-time Grand Slam champion to survive round after round. The quality of tennis wasn’t at the forefront because Williams’ body never allowed her to play to her full potential.
After not playing any competitive tennis in the last few months of 2015, Williams (semi)-returned to the “tour” at Hopman Cup in Perth. Although her right knee forced the 34 year-old out of the team competition at the beginning of January, the American looked healthy and without many injury concerns by the time the Australian Open rolled around.
As a result, Williams’ ceiling rose significantly — especially in matches against Daria Kasatkina and Agnieszka Radwanska. Her first six matches in Melbourne were testament to the American’s great play, as she hit the ball and moved through the court with complete naturalness and confidence. The opening set against Radwanska in the semifinals was nigh-on a tennis masterclass — something Williams herself would never say, considering she is her own harshest critic, always striving for perfection — which might not play into her cards at the moment.
Sometimes it’s single errors and tiny things that shake the Williams foundation during a match, and it has happened at several occasions throughout the past few years. Last summer, the American herself joked about the “Baby Rena” nickname, given to her by fans for moments when she’s looking anxious after errors, almost pleading with herself to just be better. This year, particularly at Indian Wells and in Miami, her tendency to get tense at the sight of imperfections in her game has seen her play nervous tennis. That is often when one of her biggest assets — her footwork — slows down and Williams tries to compensate by forcing the ball with more power, often to adverse effects.
2015 wasn’t just a year that saw Williams struggle with her elbow and bouts of the flu, but it also saw her have to deal with more pressure than anyone could imagine. After capturing both the Australian and French Open titles, Williams wasn’t just on course for her second “Serena Slam,” but she was forced on board the massive Grand Slam hype-train that ramped up to relentless speed following her sixth Wimbledon title. Williams carried a burden as a heavy as the celestial spheres throughout the US Open Series, but was as enduring as Atlas all the way to New York — until she played Roberta Vinci and succumbed to the superhuman pressure.
Afterwards, the World No.1 took a long break away from competitive tennis to heal, both physically and emotionally. Physically, Williams appears to have recovered quite well from her injury-ridden 2015. Her coach Patrick Mouratoglou mentioned the American’s chronic knee problems at the end of last year but beyond that, it seems like the 34-year old hasn’t been beset by further elbow issues, just to name one example.
Emotionally, however, it is a different matter. During the Australian Open, Williams largely stated that she put 2015 — particularly the way her season ended in New York — behind her, and that the time away from competitive tennis helped her recover. However, maybe we tend to forget that physical and emotional “healing” doesn’t just happen away from the courts. After being exposed to a phase of unprecedented pressure and expectation in 2015, maybe Williams also needs some time on court to reset and rediscover how to deal with the moments that have been a part of her career in the past 20 years. In 2016, these pressure moments have gotten to the American, transpiring in nerves and often manifesting in sluggish footwork and rushed decisions — as evident in all three of her Miami matches.
Nevertheless, Williams still holds two major titles, won three slams in 2015 playing well below her best at times, and has made a career of defying the odds. The World No. 1 has “struggled” — by her astronomical standards, when one considers that she’s reached two finals in three tournaments — a little in the first three months of this season, but most of Williams’ career has been about overcoming far bigger adversity than a couple of losses.
Perhaps we all — and this includes Williams herself — just need to have some patience with the World No. 1 and her game instead of expecting wall-to-wall perfection. The 21-time Grand Slam champion has given the sport a lot over time — and right now, maybe the sport needs to give her some time in return. She’ll figure things out.