The most flattering way to describe Sabine Lisicki’s upset of top-seeded and generally omnipotent Serena Williams is also the most accurate. It was one of those tennis rarities, the “shocking upset” that can’t be taken for “shocking” by anyone with two eyes in his or her head. And it was only fitting that it would happen at this particular Wimbledon, which has been the most unpredictable and form-busting Grand Slam tournament in recent memory.
If you don’t want to take my word on this, fine—take Williams’. As she said afterward, “She (Lisicki) plays really good on grass. She has a massive, massive serve . . . It’s definitely not a shock.”
Nevertheless, almost everyone had ceded this title to Williams, especially after she survived the hurly-burly of the first few days in SW19. And it’s a fact that after Serena won nine straight games once the German led 6-2, 1-0 to lead 3-0 in the third, it looked as if Lisicki, that eternal Wimbledon optimist and enthusiast, would once more experience a failure of nerve—or game—causing her dream to evaporate right before her eyes.
Not this time, though.
By the time Lisicki leveled the deciding set to 4-all, it was clear that she was in that zone where a player’s desires and confidence merge seamlessly, no matter what the situation, the rankings, past history, the X’s and 0s of the game.
Williams didn’t do much to help her own cause in that late stage. She showed surprising vulnerability at the net and, more surprising, tremors in her nerve. But those weren’t gifts to Lisicki, they were tribute exacted by a player who would not be denied, and whose can-do attitude toward this tournament was both potent and inspirational—enough to end the 34-match winning streak of a woman still building her case as perhaps the greatest female player of all time.
Other players who have been in a comparable position against Williams—think Victoria Azarenka, in last year’s U.S. Open final—have always pulled back, or stood by helpless as Williams raised her game to drive them back. Not Lisicki, not at Wimbledon, where she’s been to at least the quarterfinals in her last four starts (including this year). She has all the tools and weapons that bolster the argument that, even with Wimbledon’s courts substantially slowed, grass-court tennis is still a very different game than on any other surface. The conditions this fortnight continue to underscore that point for all those who may have forgotten.
“I just feel very comfortable here,” Lisicki said afterward. “I think I put more pressure on her. I started to be more aggressive again. I started to serve better. I just hung in there. I really wanted to win it.”
Williams’ version wasn’t all that different: “She definitely played a super aggressive game. I definitely had my opportunities and I didn’t take them. I definitely feel like I would try at some points, then maybe I backed off a little bit at some points.”
That hairline difference—Lisicki pushing on with faith, hope and courage; Williams backing off just a bit, perhaps out of determination not to panic and betray herself—was the decisive factor toward the end of the match. At match point in what would be the final game (the final score was 6-2, 1-6, 6-4) Lisicki made a forehand error, then delivered a double-fault to give Serena a break point, a golden chance to get back into it.
But Lisicki pounded out an ace to get back to deuce and hit yet another unreturnable, wide-swinging serve to again reach match point. She ended it following a furious rally with an inside-out forehand approach winner. No one can say that she backed into the quarters, nor that Williams held open the door.
Lisicki seems destined to take her place in tennis history not as a towering champion on grass, a la Martina Navratilova, Pete Sampras, Boris Becker, or. . . Serena Williams, but as one of those competitors whose combination of game and attitude lifts her above all the other also-rans, including the Grand Slam champions who don’t possess that combination. Writing the Racquet Reaction to Lisicki’s win over Sam Stosur—whose approach to Wimbledon has been about as unproductive as Lisicki’s has been fruitful—I dwelt a bit on the power of this love for the grass courts, for the place itself. It’s something shared by an entire, identifiable class of player, and that group includes Andy Roddick, Kevin Curren, Jana Novotna, and Goran Ivanisevic.
Lisicki hasn’t yet experienced the number of near misses that Ivanisevic did before he finally won Wimbledon as a wild-card—perhaps it was “pity card”—competitor in 2001. But like Ivanisevic, who was suppressed by Sampras, Lisicki has had to labor in the shadow of a pair of formidable players in Serena and her sister Venus. Ivanisevic was weeks from his 30th birthday when he finally, miraculously, won Wimbledon. Lisicki is still just 23, and she has plenty of work left to do this week, what with powerful Kaia Kanepi to beat and the winner of No. 4 Agnieszka Radwanska and No. 6 Li Na looming in the semis, should she get there.
“She definitely played a super aggressive game,” Williams said of Lisicki. “When you’re playing and you have absolutely nothing to lose, it’s like you can really play with so much freedom and so loose. That’s how she played today.”
Things will be different starting tomorrow; now, the woman who brought the mighty Serena Williams to her knees will have to show that she can live up to the responsibilities implied by that achievement. Lisicki will find herself in an altogether different mental and emotional climate, but she appears built to handle it—not least because, at Wimbledon, she enjoys every aspect of the challenge. As she said, “I think everybody who knows me knows that I’m an emotional person. I enjoy the game on the court and off the court, as well.”
Incidentally, that last quote by Williams wasn’t as snide or snippy as it may appear in a reading. She gave Lisicki plenty of credit, and also said something to her at the net at the end of the match—something so pleasing that Lisicki beamed like a loyal subject receiving an unexpected compliment from a queen.
And later, Williams said, “You know, I just have to know that going forward, if I want to be successful, if I plan on being successful, I’m never going to do it backing off. I have to play the game I can play. For me that’s being more aggressive.”
Those might have been words spoken by a first-time fourth-round loser at Wimbledon, and they’re a measure of just how dedicated—and humble—Williams is in this final stage of her career. That’s still bad news for her rivals, including Lisicki, no matter what happens the rest of this week in London.