Serena Williams was tired. Her shots were tentative, her feet passive, her serve weak. When she hit an error and raised her arms in dismay, her arms looked heavy. Afterward, when she tried to explain why she lost 1-6, 6-3, 6-4 to Alizé Cornet in the third round of Wimbledon, and why she has not made it past the fourth round of any slam so far this year, Williams’s voice was soft. “I think everyone in general plays the match of their lives against me,” she said. She sounded a little bitter, as if she hadn’t made a habit of embarrassing players herself. But lately it’s been true. Now that Serena is quiet, almost any player can make a big statement against her. No one is scared.
She knows — everyone knows — that something is wrong. “I’m really just dead,” she said after going out in her first match at the Family Circle Cup in Charleston to 78th-ranked Jana Cepelova. “I need some weeks off where I don’t think about tennis and kind of regroup. I’ve had a long couple of years, and I’m really a little fatigued.”
Last year she played 82 matches and won 78 of them — including 11 titles. She has won 17 grand slams. So it’s been strange watching her this year. At first, in Australia, in Williams’s loss to Ana Ivanovic, it seemed obvious to overlook Ivanovic’s superior returning — especially the way she fearlessly moved in on Serena’s awesome serve, using her position to cut off angles and create her own or put the ball back at Serena’s feet — and to focus instead on Serena’s minor trouble with her back. It was impossible to think someone might have just played better than Serena Williams. When she lost to Cornet at Dubai, the result was worrying but still easy to shrug off. Serena was lethargic? Perhaps she was bored. As the year went on and the poor play continued, it became harder to make excuses. Serena was still Serena, and every tournament was hers to win or hers to lose. But by the time she went out in the second round of the French Open, she looked lost.
She has remade the world so many times. Her experience is so extreme — the pulmonary embolism, the murder of her sister Yetunde Price, the Compton upbringing, the pressure, Venus, the erratic father, the impossible demands, the atmospheric expectations, the clothes, the controversies, the injuries, the indifference, and you could go on and on — that it’s bizarrely easy to take her story for granted. Since it doesn’t seem like anything that a normal human could survive, the normal rules don’t seem to apply. She seems more like a force. A Greek goddess. When she becomes irritated, the sky rains aces. She’s mercurial. She can be charismatic. She can be opaque. She can be capricious. She can be kind. When she wants revenge, watch out.
You don’t talk about her the way you talk about other players, not even Federer or Nadal. It’s hard even to imagine explaining her troubles in a typical way. Even though she’s 32 now, it’s hard to believe she could have lost a step, or that her serve is just slowing down. You know it will happen; you know it may be happening now. It’s what happens when an athlete ages. But Serena has never seemed like just another tennis player. It seems beside the point to look at her game and see backhands and forehands — to focus on problems with her technique or tactics. It seems insane to talk about the trouble Serena is having with her service delivery. It seems more reasonable, somehow, to talk about her the way you might talk about Athena. You think, There was a fight between her and Hephaestus, or She must be bored on Mount Olympus, or Aphrodite must be conspiring against her, or Tiresias must have done something to piss her off.
You think, Something’s wrong. But it seems like tempting fate to presume you can say what.
Before Serena lost to Ivanovic at the Australian Open in January, she was on a 25-match winning streak — the second longest of her career. That was only five months ago. She is having one of the worst seasons of her life now. It’s not that she’s no longer capable of dominance. She is still the no. 1 player in the world, with three titles this year. In her second-round match against Chanelle Scheepers, Serena won 6-1, 6-1 in less than an hour. Against Cornet on Saturday, she came back after a rain delay and won five straight games, taking only 29 minutes to win the first set 6-1.
Then, almost as quickly, she went down 0-5 in the second. What happened? I wanted to think it must be some problem with her back, some momentary lapse of concentration, or some feud with some demigod. I didn’t want to think about how she began to push the ball and wait for Cornet to make mistakes, because Serena doesn’t push. I didn’t want to focus on how she didn’t put away an easy overhead, because Serena knows how to finish a point. I didn’t want to focus on her footwork, because Serena is usually so quick around the court. I didn’t want to acknowledge that Cornet was the more inventive player, because Serena has uncanny court sense. I certainly didn’t want to think about the state of Serena’s serve.
Her game flows from her serve. It is the way she sets the tone and establishes control. She is deliberate before she hits it, thoughtful about where to go and how to get there, and mindful of how to disguise it. She uses spin, speed, and angles. Technically, she is marvelous — the strength of her legs, the extension of her arm, the rotation through the core, the balance of her body as she moves upward and forward in one fluid motion. She is one of the best servers in history. Two years ago at Wimbledon, on her way to winning the championship (her fifth), she hit 102 aces. Against Cornet on Saturday, Serena hit three — and had seven double faults. She won only 30 percent of points off her second serve and faced 15 break points. Cornet actually had the superior serve: as many aces and two fewer double faults, and Cornet won a higher percentage of her first service points.
Cornet, seeded 25th, had an excellent match. It was the second time she had beaten Serena in 2014, her first victory coming in February in the semifinals in Dubai. (Again: Serena lost a total of four matches in 2013.) Cornet was unafraid to challenge Serena’s incredible anticipation and good hands by pulling her to the net with drop shot after drop shot. She is emotional and dramatic, and she has a tendency to overthink, overhit, or over-weep. But against Serena, she played with uninhibited confidence and joy. In the competitive third set, she didn’t simply play like a player who had nothing to lose. She played like she thought she should win.
The contrast with Serena was striking. At the end, Cornet was exuberant and wild. She dropped to her knees and kissed the court. Serena was subdued. For much of the match, Serena’s mouth was in a set line or a grimace. She used to get angry and use her anger as fuel. On Saturday, she became frustrated and seemed stuck. By the end, bright-eyed Serena was fighting back tears.
From the moment she arrived at Wimbledon, she seemed elsewhere. In her pretournament press conference, she kept some of her answers to a single word. When a reporter asked how long it took her to recover from her defeat to Garbiñe Muguruza at the French Open, she answered, “Who says I was over it?” She has talked about how motivated she is to win now. But against Cornet, she was the one who showed less fight.
She only seemed to spring from Richard Williams’s head fully formed. She only seemed to change the world just by being. She turned the cracked courts of Compton into English grass. The Williams sisters have won 10 of the last 14 Wimbledon titles. She came to a place that is stubbornly inhospitable and has made it hers. The All England Club very noticeably tries to keep its great champion off Centre Court. No matter. When Serena arrived at Wimbledon, she said she “just felt a sense of being home.” Still, every empire falls, and with it its myths.
But what makes Serena so fascinating — after all the success, setbacks, and attention — is that she has always been bigger than the legend that surrounds her. She is not immune to time, or to the mental weariness that can accompany winning, or to the pressures that people go through. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about her is that really, she has always been more human than any god.