Coming into the 2012 French Open, Serena Williams was 46-0 in first round grand slam tournament appearances. She was also 17-0 on clay for this current clay court season. After her first round was completed, astonishingly, those numbers had changed to 46-1, and 17-1 respectively.
Her loss to French player Virginie Razzano, by any measure, can only be described as “a shocker.”
Serena kicked off preparation for the first slam of summer, the French Open, by winning the Family Circle Cup in Charleston, SC which was contested on clay.
She won handily while trouncing Samantha Stosur 6-1, 6-1 in the semis and Lucie Safarova in the final.
Serena had a score to settle with Stosur after losing a somewhat controversial final to her in the 2011 US Open. As has often been the case, Serena soundly defeats any woman who has beaten her previously in a match of significance, especially a grand slam. And it’s usually the very next time they meet in any tournament.
Serena then took to the dreaded blue clay at the Madrid Open like a duck to water. She won easily.
She appeared poised to win her third prep for the French by leisurely progressing through to the semifinals of the BNL d’Italia in Rome before withdrawing prior to meeting Li Na for a berth in the final. She cited a slightly sore lower back as the reason for her withdrawal.
In an interview, Serena stated that the injury was minor and that she expected to be 100% ready for the French.
So, in light of having her best clay court season ever, appearing as fit or fitter than ever, being match tight, focused, and highly motivated, the tennis world (myself included) fully expected Serena to win the tournament. She appeared perfectly positioned to garner the 14th singles slam title of her illustrious career.
That’s why her loss to the 111th ranked female in the first round…the freaking first round, is so confounding.
I watched the match once, objectively. I then watched a replay during which at times I stood an inch from the TV screen with a double-powered magnifying glass, going over every visible detail trying to find something weird or just out of the ordinary. I could find nothing amiss.
But I was determined to continue my investigation.
I watched a third time, this time without a beer so as to control for any possible sensory impairment. I sat in a different chair at a different angle and cranked up the volume to an insane level.
There had to be something I was missing. There just had to be.
Mind you, I wasn’t trying to find an excuse for the stunning loss, just anything substantive that might shed some light on the catastrophe.
It was an exhaustive but thorough review after which I felt drained and took a power nap in order to more effectively gather and assimilate my thoughts.
I now have the answer.
It was pressure.
Serena Williams, 13-time grand slam singles winner, champion of many other tournaments, two-time Olympic gold metal doubles winner with her sister Venus, only woman to have exceeded $35 million in prize money alone, first player, male or female, to win five Australian Open singles titles in the open era, etc, etc, succumbed to the very pressure under which she had so often thrived in years past.
Because she had both so much to gain and so very much to lose. To enter the tournament as such an imposing presence, as such an overwhelming favorite, meant that she absolutely HAD TO WIN.
I think the pressure whether perceived or actual, self-imposed or applied by friends, fans, family, media, or pundits, was enough to initiate the unraveling process that was on display from the outset of the match.
Still, she’d been in these situations so many times before. What was any different this time?
Well there was something different, something very different.
Serena found herself opposed by a foe who had nothing to lose and in all likelihood wanted to win this particular match more than any she’d ever played.
In short, Virginie Razzano, at just one year younger than Serena, was emotionally charged, highly motivated and supremely inspired.
To further negatively compound matters for Serena, she had never played Razzano. She didn’t know quite what to expect. And Razzano played well, quite well actually.
Unquestionably, Serena made a substantial number of unforced errors. But there is always an element of subjectivity in saying that errors in tennis were unforced.
In this case, I feel that Razzano’s unexpectedly sound play coupled with the oppressive pressure experienced by Serena, caused the high number of errors.
By tennis standards the errors will still be considered and recorded as “unforced.” But by human standards, many of those errors were forced by raw, uncontrollable emotions which, on this occasion, Serena was simply unable to harness.
Did Virginie Razzano win her first round match against Serena Williams? Yes.
Does her game stack up well against the champion quality game of Serena Williams? No.
Did Serena Williams beat herself? No.
Pressure and Virginie Razzano beat Serena Williams.
The pressure was probably the tougher of the two components.
The 2012 French Open was Serena Williams’ tournament to lose and lose it she did.
So, did Razzano deserve to win? Absolutely.
Serena Williams probably should be 47-0 in first round grand slam singles matches.
She’s not. She’s 46-1. That’s the nature of athletics. On a given day, unpredictable circumstance coupled with overwhelming pressure can form a toxic mix and anything can happen.
In this case, something astoundingly unprecedented did happen.
But, as the saying goes, “There’s a first time for everything.”