Usually when one of my faves loses an important match, I feel badly for them. I felt badly for Nalbandian when he lost to the Frenchman Chardy, after being up two sets. I felt badly for Hewitt that his lack of weapons made him no match for the persistent Ferrer. I felt terrible for Mauresmo that no-one expected her to win, and once again she didn’t. I felt sad when my new favorite, the delightful Alize Cornet, lost in straight sets to Agnieszka Radwanska of Poland.
But when Serena lost to Katarina Srebotnik yesterday at Roland Garros, I did not feel badly. Instead I felt embarrassed. I found myself feeling ashamed for Serena.
I was ashamed by the ease with which Srebotnik had dismantled her. I could not believe that Serena seemed not to have anticipated this type of match and was simply never able to come up with effective responses. I found myself feeling ashamed for her as she galumphed heavily towards the net after yet another of Srebotnik’s lethal dropshots. I felt embarrassed for Serena as she screamed in frustration as her response to yet another of Srebotnik’s easy sliced backhands landed in the net. I sucked my teeth in anger as forehand after forehand went wide of its mark when Srebotnik moved into net. Really, Serena seemed so completely unprepared.
I am not accusing Serena of having been unprepared for Roland Garros. She came into Roland Garros with a 17-match winning streak that signaled that she was a force to be reckoned with. She seemed heavy but fit, muscled, and strong. She was widely touted as one of the favorites to win it all. So what went wrong?
I believe that the problem may be that Serena had prepared for Roland Garros in general. But she did not seem prepared for Katarina Srebotnik [photo on left] in particular. Her opponent however, made it absolutely clear that she had prepared specifically for Serena. In her post-match interview, Srebotnik disclosed that she and her coach had worked out a game plan. It was the same game plan that almost worked the last time she faced Serena in Charleston a few weeks ago. At that time, she took Serena to three sets but was not able to win. Srebotnik came into this rematch with the confidence that she had a winning strategy. All she needed to do was make it better, not change it. And that is precisely what she did.
Srebotnik broke Serena in the very first game of the match. Under different circumstances – particularly on the women’s side of the draw – this would not be a big deal. But what it signaled was Srebotnik’s readiness to win. This was no 18-year-old big hitter who was going to try to out-power Serena from the baseline. This was an experienced 27-year-old who had studied her opponent and knew precisely how to beat her – by mixing up her shots, now playing soft slices, next hitting some powerful forehands, now going after the weaker forehand, next hitting unexpectedly powerful shots to the backhand, continually changing up angles and speeds. Coaches everywhere should require their students to watch this match as a prototype for how to dismantle a powerbabe on clay.
In one of her early interviews at Roland Garros, Serena spoke very little about tennis. Instead she talked about her new apartment in Paris and even spoke a little French to prove that she was serious about her new love affair with this country. And in her immediate post-match interview, she seems dispirited and discouraged. But I don’t think she will remain depressed for long. After all, here is Serena [photo at right] crossing a street in France with her own Personal Umbrella Handler shielding her from the rain. This is not a woman who seems bothered by a loss. This is a diva in the mould of P. Diddy with her very own Farnsworth Bentley.
It is always interesting to listen to the commentary by other knowledgeable tennis players while a match is in progress. Navratilova, while commentating on this match, revealed that she has observed Serena’s match preparation and was surprised to note that Serena never moved while practicing volleys but simply hit ball after ball directly fed to her. This is not the kind of coaching one would expect to see on a public court – much less for a top professional preparing for a Grand Slam. Navratilova suggested that this may have hurt Serena in a match requiring movement to the ball. The inadequacy of the coaching offered by the Williams parents is one that has been rehashed on tennis boards everywhere. And yet Oracene Price continues to remain listed as Serena’s official coach.
I was hoping that Serena would have exploited the gap in women’s tennis created by Justine Henin’s peremptory departure from the sport. But so far it has been all Maria Sharapova, who has continued to find ways to win despite being continually challenged at every stage of this Grand Slam. It’s not that Maria’s game is better suited to clay than Serena’s – in fact it is not. Like Serena, Maria is a powerbabe who plays the same game regardless of surface. Like Serena she is wont to scream in frustration, and the decibel level of her screams increases as the match progresses. Like Serena, Maria sometimes presses too much and goes for shots when she should not, which contributes to her error count. But a win in France will go a long way towards making Sharapova seem like a legitimate Number 1 – as opposed to someone who just inherited the title because the real Number 1 abdicated her throne. I had hoped for a similar ascent by Serena.