Twice in a span of 24 hours at Wimbledon, the same basic drama unfolded… and cut in different directions.
On Friday, Serena Williams — one of the two players expected to make the women’s final — found herself at 4-4 in the third set on Centre Court. She lost serve at 4-4 and watched Heather Watson serve for the match, but Serena was able to rescue herself and win, 7-5. She won the first set decisively and lost control of the match in the second, but she regrouped when it mattered to make Manic Monday at The All-England Club.
On Saturday, Petra Kvitova — the other one of the two players expected to contest the women’s championship at SW19 — found herself at 4-4 in the third set on Centre Court. She was on the verge of breaking Jelena Jankovic’s serve at 15-30, putting the Serbian in a difficult position and hitting a crosscourt backhand into the open court. However, before hitting that backhand, Kvitova challenged an in call on the right baseline, in the deuce court. Challenging a call from a winning position at a key juncture in a match has to be right, but Kvitova was wrong. The ball was indeed in. Jankovic got the point for 30-all and a reprieve. She held for 5-4 and then broke for the match after Kvitova sprayed several more errors.
For the first time since 2009, Kvitova — who doesn’t play well at the other majors but has made Wimbledon the cornerstone of her tennis seasons — bowed out of suburban London in the first week of The Championships. This came within two hours after Sabine Lisicki failed to make the second week of Wimbledon for the first time since 2008.
With Kvitova, Lisicki, and Angelique Kerber all out of the tournament, the bottom half of the women’s singles draw will produce a very unlikely finalist. Agnieszka Radwanska is the only player in the bottom half who has made a Wimbledon final before; the seven other players accompanying her have the opportunity of a lifetime.
Naturally, the most immediate impact of Kvitova’s loss to Jankovic is that it blows open the bracket and makes the bottom half a wild scramble for Championship Saturday, July 11. However, there are a couple of deeper stories that need to be told in light of Kvitova’s crash and the Serena escape which preceded it on Friday.
Serena Williams could retire today and not leave anything unaccomplished in tennis. She’s done everything one can do, achieved everything one can achieve. She doesn’t need another paycheck. Her legacy can be enhanced by a calendar Grand Slam, but if she fails, nothing about her resume will suffer. Her very elevated place in the sport and its history is secure. There’s nothing Serena outwardly needs to have.
Heather Watson, who very nearly beat Serena on Friday, had never advanced past the third round of a major. At 23, Watson was trying to register the first really profound breakthrough of her career. Watson and dozens of pros like her are in positions where everything is a point of need, everything has yet to be achieved. Surely, the laws of averages would say that on a given day, the person looking for the smallest crust of bread will find it, and the person with more wealth than whole nations will fail to acquire another triumph.
Naturally, Serena has lost every now and then against underdogs in very surprising ways. At this time last year, in fact, we were wondering where Serena was headed after losses to Garbine Muguruza and (more alarmingly) Alize Cornet at the French Open and Wimbledon, respectively. Yet, Serena has responded to that downturn with 24 straight match wins at majors. She’s barely lost at all in 2015 and is as good as she’s ever been in terms of competitive excellence. The serve isn’t firing the way it can, and more matches are patchy compared to Serena’s absolute prime, but Serena’s winning almost everything in sight.
It’s more than a little revealing, then, that on a day when Watson had so many things going her way, Serena still said no. A player with everything — a player who could so easily rest on her laurels and concede a loss due to a random bad day at the office — still fought like a peasant for the very crust of bread Watson hungered for. This was a person with endless riches snatching a five-dollar bill from a homeless person in a fierce tug of war.
(We don’t recommend or encourage doing such a thing in real life, just to be clear, but you get the point.)
It’s that kind of determination — especially now, with a career made and a legacy secure — which defines the greatest of champions. It’s why Serena is still in this tournament.
Petra Kvitova is a pretty damn good tennis player, a multi-major champion, in fact. Yet, she showed that she’s not Serena Williams. More instructively, she reminded us that she’s not even Maria Sharapova or Victoria Azarenka.
This is where the story of women’s tennis in the Age of Serena merits more examination.
Earlier this week, we discussed the struggles of Simona Halep, who had a pretty decent 2015 season through the month of April but has faltered badly at each of the last two majors. Halep and Eugenie Bouchard were really, really good for several months in 2014, and their ability to make one major semifinal after another — stacking together strong results — is precisely what suggested they could remain primary threats on the WTA Tour.
One year later, though, stringing together quality results is not part of the reality for either player. Halep and Bouchard are wondering what has gone wrong for them, their games disordered and their confidence shot to pieces.
Angelique Kerber, briefly alluded to above, pounces at smaller tournaments but can’t do much at the majors. Lisicki, also mentioned above, has historically done well at Wimbledon but not at most other tournaments. You can see that tennis is so supremely challenging for this reason among others: The sport forces its players to win consistently under changing circumstances and different surfaces.
Heat, cold, indoors. Grass, clay, hardcourt. Spring, summer, autumn. Fresh legs, tired legs. Days off, no days off. Tennis players might step onto a court with the same dimensions every week, but the competitive context is constantly shifting.
Player X is tougher on this surface. This tournament might feature rougher weather or a more hostile crowd (such as what Serena faced in the Watson match). One match might be played early in the day after a three-hour night match in the previous round. Particular circumstances are regularly in flux on the tennis tour; those who aspire to be great have to meet each of these challenges.
Stacking together high-level results, especially at the majors, is the measure of the tennis professional.
Seen through this just-outlined framework, it’s remarkably impressive that Serena still won her third-round scare, and it’s profoundly disappointing that Kvitova couldn’t do the same, given that she was playing on her favourite surface at the one major tournament where she’s thrived.
What Serena’s and Kvitova’s different journeys also illustrate is how rarely other players on tour are able to continuously win at the highest levels of competition.
Maria Sharapova has produced two stretches in her career in which she’s reached the semifinals or better in at least 70 percent of major tournaments over a span of at least three calendar years. From 2004 through 2007, she made the semifinals or better in 9 of 12 majors (75 percent). From 2011 through 2013, she went semis or better in 7 of 9 majors (77 percent).
Victoria Azarenka, from 2011 through 2013, reached the semifinals or better in 7 of 10 majors (70 percent).
Beyond those two players, which other active WTA pros have been able to do the same at least once in their careers? Venus Williams certainly rates as one, but she’s been around the block many times. If you want to find anyone else under 30 who can point to such an achievement, you’ll have to look long and hard.
It has been said — and it remains a reasonable point — that Serena Williams has lacked one truly great and constant rival throughout her career, the kind of rival Martina Navratilova had in Chris Evert (and vice-versa), and which Monica Seles was for Steffi Graf until she was stabbed. Yet, when one realizes how constantly Serena wins the kind of match she won against Heather Watson, and how rarely Petra Kvitova and most other contemporary WTA competitors are able to string together three years’ worth of strong showings at majors, it becomes easier — not harder — to believe the claim that Serena is the best there ever was.
The only problem, though: What happens to the WTA when Serena leaves?
We don’t have to answer that question now, but keep it in mind for 2019 and beyond.