Serena Williams at home with the greats, but out of Wimbledon
WIMBLEDON, England --- There once was a time -- just last year, wasn't it? -- when stately old Wimbledon stood for order, calm, the buttressing of the ruling class. Let other majors give pro tennis its grit and chaos and one-off champs. Wimbledon was the establishment Grand Slam, a place and time for the game's royalty to preen. A few upsets were acceptable, of course. But anarchy? Pretenders? No, that just wasn't done.
Until now. If the first slippery week of the 2013 Wimbledon Championships wasn't proof enough, the best day of the tennis year made clear that some strange, new strain is growing in the grass at the All England Club. Defying predictions that the one player who could beat Serena Williams this year was Serena Williams, the 24th-ranked Sabine Lisicki beat the five-time champ 6-2, 1-6, 6-4 on Monday, finishing off the fourth-round match with a masterly, 17-stroke rally and then collapsing, face-first, onto the Centre Court turf in tears.
"Bit of a shock, isn't it?" said a female Wimbledon official, staring at the grass, as the stunned crowd shuffled past.
A bit. With a 77-3 record since reviving her career a year ago, Williams had been the most dominant player, male or female, in tennis, and perhaps the most dominant athlete alive. After arriving in London with the 2013 French Open title in hand, Williams seemed wholly immunized against the upset fever ("Wimble-geddon," as Sloane Stephens put it) that had claimed Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and Maria Sharapova. She breezed through her first three matches with regal ease, and walked on court Monday having won 34 matches in a row.
Yet, Lisicki's heavy, high-octane serve and aggressive style put the defending champion on the defensive early, and after she came back and took what seemed a commanding third set lead -- 3-0, and then 4-3, 0-40 -- the 31-year-old Williams couldn't orchestrate her usual ferocious close.
"As is most of the time, the key of the match was Serena," said Williams' coach, Patrick Mouratoglou. "It's not to say that Sabine didn't play a good match; she played a great match. But even though Serena was in a bad day today, she really had the keys."
But in truth, Williams did not give this one away. On the big points, when it mattered most, Lisicki simply played more like Serena than Serena did. That was the surprise.
"Lisicki wasn't intimidated," said Martina Navratilova, one of Serena's few remaining rivals for the title of greatest women's player ever. "That's half the battle: Most of the women lose to Serena before they even step on the court because they really don't think they can compete. Serena obviously was nervous, couldn't get on track. She had opportunities she couldn't take care of, especially in the third set, and once it's close you don't flow. You're not freewheeling, you can't go for the return, and you don't go for the big serve because you don't want to be hitting a second serve."
Yet, if there was ever a day that Williams should've felt relaxed, this was it. Wimbledon, of course, is the only Grand Slam that takes its middle Sunday off, a wondrously stubborn and civilized practice that leaves players recharged for the second-week run -- and is one big reason it seemingly produces fewer rogue champions. And this past Sunday, Williams -- who with her sister Venus seemed, early on, as much at war with the tour as a part of it -- gathered off-site with what's believed to be the largest collection of former No. 1 players at one time. In celebration of the 40th anniversary of the women's tour, she gave a perfect speech and, sitting primly on the left of founding mother Billie Jean King, looked very much at home.
That day off also allows for what the Brits call "Manic Monday," the only time in the Grand Slam calendar when all 16 remaining players -- men and women -- play on the same day. This is the tennis glutton's ultimate feast: On TV, nine hours of big-name showdowns, breakthroughs and collapses shuttling before the bleary-eyed. On the grounds, two great showdowns -- even with the draw blown to pieces -- rattled on at once. While Williams was faltering on Center, out on Court 18 the 20-year-old Stephens, one of the few women to defeat her this year, was beating Monica Puig 4-6, 7-5, 6-1 to reach her first Wimbledon quarterfinal and continue what seems an inexorable rise into the top 10.
"It's a dream to be here," said Stephens, whose first memory of Wimbledon is the "epic final" between Venus Williams and Lindsay Davenport in 2005, the longest in Wimbledon history. "I was not good at tennis then, obviously. I was a non-factor. So it's crazy just thinking that I went from watching that to actually here in the quarters. It's definitely crazy ... but it's good."
Those eager for the next generation of greats will find it hard to resist seeing Monday as at least a first step in a changing of the American guard, not least because Stephens and Serena have revealed themselves lately to be the best of "frenemies." It will be tempting, too, to pick through the tattered fabric of this year's Wimbledon and declare a common thread: Faced with a wide-open draw, Federer and Williams, both 31, wilted.
"Nobody's a machine, and as you get older the pressure mounts," Navratilova said. "It gets worse. Because you're closer to the end of the road and you feel it even more. And she was such an overwhelming favorite; I don't know if I've ever been as big a favorite as she was this year. It's hard to deal with: Even when you win, it's like you were supposed to win. You don't have that freedom to play effortlessly.
The difference, though, is that Federer has been losing big matches with more frequency of late, while Williams' second act may have her retiring as the greatest older player, too. While his loss here felt like the end of an era, hers felt, for the moment anyway, more like a sound and fury signifying nothing. Mouratoglou seems to now be the dominant voice in Williams' camp -- neither of her parents/coaches, Richard or Oracene Price, came to Wimbledon -- and he expects a recharged Serena for the hard-court season.
"When she loses, she's even more motivated to work hard," he said. "So: It's bad news for the opponents.
Perhaps. But on Monday, the last American playing at Wimbledon didn't cry, didn't fall face-first, barely celebrated her victory at all. Stephens did what you're supposed to do, even the first time; she acted like she wasn't done yet. She slung her bag over her shoulder and walked off the court and through the thick, manic crowd, a hundred yards alone back to the locker room. Save the one kid who asked her to sign a ball, no one noticed. If nothing else, that seems destined to change.