Serena was heavily favored to win this 2013 Australian Open. To many, her loss is shocking. To me it’s only mildly surprising.
Because of one stark similarity to the last time she lost a match in a major, the one which occurred in the first round of the 2012 French Open to Virginie Razzano, the 111th ranked player.
The undeniable similarity is the immense pressure created for Serena by again being touted as a lock to win the tournament.
Maybe the injury she suffered to her right ankle in the first round, having to play a bit harder than expected in a losing doubles effort with sister Venus the day before her match with Sloane, and an apparent back spasm in the second set of that quarterfinal which required treatment, ultimately led to a the unexpected outcome. That’s a lot to bear up under for sure.
Even with all that, I just can’t buy it. I know that’s taking a somewhat hard line, one that will be unpopular with many but I’m willing to take the heat for saying this: I think the oppressive pressure, the same type she felt in the French was the more substantive culprit.
My stance is based on what I saw, the negative body language, the incessant pleas to her box when she missed easy shots, really easy shots, some of which flew well beyond the court boundaries, the demolition of a racket. They were all just nervous type behaviors, some of which were very similar to those exhibited in her match with Razzano.
Serena thrives on drama. She can make what might be an otherwise boring match into a dramatic contest that she most often wins. You know, she gives fans their money’s worth. It’s simply good business. Tournament organizers and owners love her. She packs stadiums and delivers one hell of a show.
But occasionally, when those pesky nerves emerge at times when she knows that everyone knows that she is supposed to win, tightness sets in and things begin to spiral out of control.
A close examination of the deciding third set supports my contention.
After the second set back spasm which resulted in her apparent loss of ability to deliver the lethal first serve that wins her so many free points, she resorted to just spinning the ball in, sometimes at speeds less than 80 mph, yet she still was able to get into a tiebreak, a very winnable situation for a player of her stature and experience.
Surprisingly, she lost it.
But then in the third, after a couple of games, the mph’s on her first serve suddenly increased significantly and her movement seemed unencumbered. At that juncture, the spasm appeared to have disappeared. However, there was still a shaky, unsure quality to her play.
I’m telling you, it was nerves.
Serena is human. And despite being a great champion, she is still subject to the same human frailties as anyone else. She had to be thinking, “Oh God, I can’t lose this, I just cant!”
Well, that’s exactly when she does lose.
I played basketball in elementary, high school and college. In elementary and high school, I was the go to player when scoring was needed. I reveled in that role. I’d been playing since the age of five and could turn up the heat whenever needed. It came easily to me, that is until the unthinkable happened.
In the latter portion of my junior year, our high school team was playing one of the most important games of the season. The gymnasium was packed. We were expected to win and I was expected to play the pivotal role.
Just before tip off, we huddled around coach and he said, “Alright now, you all know what to do. Get the ball to Rogers, just get the ball into his hands.”
I’ll never forget that night. Suddenly I felt a knot in my stomach. My hands became clammy and I felt as though I couldn’t breathe. The first shot I took fell three feet short of the rim and I was no more than six feet from the damn basket. I missed my next three shots, one of which was a simple freaking layup. I missed eight of ten free throws.
I felt all eyes were on me. I didn’t want to look directly at coach but peripherally I could see a “what the f**k” look on his face. I couldn’t hit the side of a barn. Of course we lost the game.
I wanted out of that gym in the worst way. I didn’t even shower, avoided coach and hastily fled the locker room. I ran right into an old man whose grandson was one of my teammates. He never missed a game. He’d seen every game since my freshman year. He looked me up and down and then said, “You know son, pressure can bust a can.” That was it. He walked away.
I had no idea what the hell he meant and was far too distraught to work at deciphering a riddle.
Having always felt relaxed and in control, I had no frame of reference for what happened to me that night but the old man did. He knew I’d been overwhelmed, he knew I’d choked.
It took a while for me to get over that episode but the old man’s words stayed with me for life.
Pressure, whether perceived or real, can be the undoing of even the most dominant athlete. It’s nothing new. Somewhere in the world, at some sporting event, as I’m typing these words, a great athlete is having a nervous implosion.
I know what it feels like. It’s awful and there’s nothing you can do about it once it reaches critical mass. It’s like a virus that just has to run it’s course. You can only suffer through and hope it never happens again.
Regarding Sloane Stephens, my opinions are in no way intended to diminish what she accomplished. She played very well considering the fact that she was playing against her idol and is in her infancy in terms of grand slam experience. She had some very nervy games but still showed considerable poise for a 19 year-old performing in uncharted territory. I see nothing but upside for her.
Sloane had a dream run. She even had a multitude of chances against a choking Azarenka in the semis but was unable to capitalize.
So, Serena’s loss ultimately is Azarenka or Li Na’s gain. One of those two has been basically handed a slam victory on a silver platter.
Serena’s quest for a calender-year slam ended before it really got started. It was a lofty aspiration but one that she may have been able to fulfill if not for injury and another 2012 French Open-like situation in which she was derailed by a case of oppressive pressure.
On the plus side, I was pleasantly struck by the more serene Serena. There was a point at which she was called for a foot fault. I thought, “Uh oh!”… but nothing happened. She calmly proceeded with her second serve and even politely asked the linesman who called it which foot crossed the line. Her post-match interview was equally innocuous. She seems to have developed a greater inner peace. That’s all good.
Regardless of this loss, in my book, Serena is still number one, still the best, most dominant female player on tour.
It will be interesting to watch both her’s and Sloane’s progression through the rest of the season.
Believe me, Serena is not finished.
Not yet, definitely not yet.