It is one of the constant points of contention in the global tennis community: When is a player “faking discomfort” on the court, and when is pain real?
There’s a double-meaning in the act of mentioning “discomfort,” because taking on the topic is supremely uncomfortable. Choosing to talk about player discomfort — real, false, or somewhere in between — invites hostility, suspicion, and charges of bias from the fans who don’t agree with a particular assertion or opinion.
Yet, how can one not at least reference what happened on Thursday afternoon in Paris, in the second women’s semifinal between Serena Williams and Timea Bacsinszky?
Serena, dragging herself around the court in a manner similar to what was seen in previous matches against Victoria Azarenka (third round) and Sloane Stephens (fourth round), authored a very familiar narrative by gathering herself when trailing midway through the second set. Tasting her own blood, Serena summoned her powers of concentration and attained a higher gear. Her opponent — having controlled the run of play for 1.5 sets — could not maintain the level of performance needed to finish the job. Serena prevailed in three sets.
Yet, what’s different about this match against Bacsinszky — relative to the Azarenka and Stephens escapes — is that Serena easily pulled away without any real resistance in the third set. Azarenka grabbed a 2-0 third-set lead. Stephens made Serena work for her fourth-round win until the last ball was struck. On Thursday against Bacsinszky, Serena baked a third-set bagel at the end of a warm, sun-drenched afternoon. The shadows arrived only when the match had already turned the corner, so it’s not as though Serena was playing most of the third set in cooler conditions.
How could Serena bagel an opponent if she was sick? The suspicions of the masses are impossible to repress in such instances. It’s a familiar story for global tennis fans, one which has arisen trillions of times over the years whenever Novak Djokovic deals with fatigue, Andy Murray grabs his leg or hip, or Rafael Nadal says something about his knees.
What’s eternally tricky for fans or anyone else removed from the scene of a sporting event is that television cannot provide a constant one-camera focus on the participants. Being on site in the stadium offers a person a much better glimpse of what’s going on with the individual athlete, but even then, the mind-body dualism necessary for peak athletic performance is a complicated thing… because our minds are complicated.
Djokovic is a unique athlete in that he is supremely able to deal with discomfort. Very few world-class athletes possess his coping skills. Does this mean Djokovic fakes or overplays his condition? Hardly — it just means that initial reactions of concern shouldn’t be taken as sweeping verdicts on Djokovic’s overall well-being. Put more plainly, first impressions should not be interpreted as final impressions or lasting verdicts. Athletes play with pain, but the great ones — Djokovic, Nadal and Murray all qualify as such — are able to deal with pain a lot better than most.
They’re NOT faking their discomfort. They are concerned. There’s a difference between the two.
To say more about these athletes: Their outward expressions of agony might be overplayed, but only because it is better in moments of discomfort to spill out some anxiety instead of repressing it. What might appear to be pure theatrics to the skeptics in the crowd is often little more than a coping mechanism for the athlete who is trying to gauge his or her level of physical health, on the fly, in a highly competitive situation.
Does this mean athletes never fake injuries? Of course not. Yet, discomfort is a part of the game (any game), and in the freshness of a moment — a moment laden with uncertainty — it is hard to demand that an athlete carry him/herself in the one way that perfectly matches our expectations of what said athlete should do. Putting athletes in a narrow box like this, instead of allowing them to play through either pain or (just as validly) uncertainty about their condition in the heat of battle, is — in the end — unreasonable.
It’s understandable, but it’s just not reasonable.
This was necessary to say before turning back to the central figure of this day in women’s tennis, Serena Jameka Williams.
In the first women’s semifinal in Paris, Lucie Safarova defeated Ana Ivanovic to make her first major final. Given that Safarova had never made a major final and had not gained the chance to serve for the match in her one previous major semifinal (2014 Wimbledon against Petra Kvitova), she was nervous as all git-up versus Ivanovic. Her 7-5, 7-5 win was more the product of Ivanovic’s lapses than her own tennis. Yet, sometimes players win because their opponent falters. That’s competition — some days, you’re better; other days, your opponent is worse.
In the Williams-Bacsinszky match, a slightly more nuanced assessment is merited in relationship to the second set, which we’ll get to in a moment.
The third set clearly moved in Serena’s direction when Bacsinszky donated the first game with a couple of shocking open-court misses from 30-all, and that shift was solidified when Serena dug out of 15-40 when serving at 1-0. Bacsinszky missed a regulation forehand at 15-40, and when Serena won the 30-40 point with a service winner, she had hurdled her last true obstacle of the day.
It’s in the second set, though, that it’s a little harder to arrive at the proper balance between “Player A losing” and “Player B winning.”
On an immediate level, yes, Bacsinszky is the one who allowed this match to get away from her. Serving up a break at 3-2 in the second set, she missed two of the down-the-line groundstrokes she had been nailing for the first 1.5 sets. The misses were nowhere near as bad as her misfires early in set three, but they were misses nonetheless. Bacsinszky committed the kind of tennis sin many others have experienced against Serena over the years: She played one bad game at a time when she could not afford to do so.
In the remaining three games of set two, Serena looked very much like the player seen in the latter stages of her Azarenka and Stephens comebacks. She moved her feet better. She blasted groundstrokes with more authority. She found a little more energy. Bacsinszky didn’t really lose those last three games in set two; Serena won them. Bacsinszky, though, gave Serena an opening — and fed her a heaping plate of confidence — by dropping that 3-2 game moments earlier.
Basically, Bacsinszky opened the door, rather than Serena breaking down the door. Yet, once Bacsinszky opened that door, Serena marched through the portal instead of wondering if she had found the right room number.
You might think Serena was overplaying her discomfort. Perhaps on the extreme outer margins of that statement, that’s true to a point. Yet, on a day when Serena didn’t own an abundance of energy, she found it — and efficiently marshaled it — in another clean conclusion to a match that, as she said afterward to ESPN television, “I can’t believe I won.”
It is so easy to be skeptical of a legendary athlete when she says something like that following a final-set bagel, but it says something about Serena that she would bother to say such a thing… something she didn’t say after the Azarenka or Stephens matches.
Maybe, after all, Serena was suffering. Maybe, after all, she really was laboring through this match against Bacsinszky and didn’t feel well.
There are no “maybes” attached to this statement: Serena Jameka Williams is one of the most remarkable athletes we — inhabitants of this planet in the early 21st century — will ever be able to see, on a tennis court or any other playing field.
Consider this: Of all the tournaments Serena has won, and of all the 19 majors she has captured, she’s never won one when being a comeback artist on this scale:
Serena never has come back from losing the first set four times in one tournament.
— Chris Skelton (@ChrisSkelton87) June 4, 2015
That tweet above was typed before the end of Thursday’s match, so Serena has now authored that fourth comeback. If she beats Safarova in Saturday’s final, she will have done something unprecedented in a career that has smashed a lot of precedents, a few months short of a 34th birthday.
That’s pretty freakin’ incredible, and you don’t need to be a fan of Serena to acknowledge as much.
Serena’s performance under the circumstances — against an opponent in Bacsinszky who could not have played any better through 3-2 in the second set — also brought this sports memory to mind:
That was tennis' equivalent of the Michael Jordan flu game against the Utah Jazz. She just willed herself to win that match. #Serena
— Ramesh (@zbrain) June 4, 2015
Skepticism about an athlete’s discomfort is natural. Indeed, how did Michael Jordan possibly score 38 points in a high-pressure world-championship game on the road in a hostile arena… while being sick as a dog?
Yet — and this applies to the other tennis players mentioned above — isn’t it in the nature of greatness, and not just that, but greatness at its absolute height, to transcend suffering and pain?
I get it. Most people get it: Serena’s reactions — like Djokovic’s reactions and Nadal’s statements — can seem like drama-magnet poppycock some of the time. Yet, human beings suffer no matter how successful or talented. Some just manage to deal with that suffering better than others, regardless of how the optics might look on the surface.
Serena Williams, her form not the best and her health far from ideal, has still made her way to the finals of what is by far her least-successful major tournament. She has absorbed quality first sets from a series of opponents who generally played well. Scratching, clawing, desperately fighting an uphill battle, Serena has found ways to win anyway, calling forth the identity of Maria Sharapova in the process.
Under four months short of her 34th birthday.
Sick. Sluggish. Baked by a warm and unrelenting afternoon sun.
Many will read these words and feel THEY, not Ms. Williams, are about to vomit. Many are tired of what they perceive as Serena glorification. It’s all too much overdramatization and embellishment, they’ll say.
The rejoinder to all of that: With a player as great as Serena Williams, someone who is one match away from registering an unprecedented feat in her spectacular career, it’s just about impossible to embellish the remarkable things she continues to do on a tennis court.
To be more precise, how can you embellish a career whose absurd heights already transcend the limits of human language… and which could rise even higher with a win on Saturday in Paris?