The Top 10 Matches of 2013

No. 9 of '13: Teutonic Plague

Tuesday, December 10, 2013 /by

Serena Williams survived Black Wednesday at Wimbledon—she was lucky enough not to play that day—but she couldn’t make it through Manic Monday. By the time the No. 1 seed walked onto Centre Court to face Sabine Lisicki to start the second week, the tournament already known as Wimblegeddon had waved goodbye to a dozen or so of her fellow marquee players: Nadal, Federer, Sharapova, Azarenka, and Tsonga, to name a few, were all gone. As far as the women's draw went, the consensus around the grounds was, “You might as well hand Serena the trophy.”

That consensus ended when Lisicki beat Williams in their fourth-round encounter, in what might qualify as the biggest upset of them all. Yes, everyone, including Serena, knew that the German loves Wimbledon; she was a semifinalist there in 2011, and London's tabloids have christened her, somewhat creepily, "Doris Becker." But Williams was the defending champion, she had won an Olympic gold on Centre Court the summer before, and she was riding a 34-match win streak dating back to February. At that moment, she seemed to be as unbeatable as any player at any stage that I could remember.

Then she was beaten. The shock of that loss is what what made this match so exciting, and my ninth best of 2013. Knowing the result robs it of its suspense, of course, but the drama of the last few games can still be felt in the video clip above. Here are a few thoughts on the highlights from a match that I watched, sporadically, in a jammed press box. Like the rest of the incredulous Centre Court audience, I didn’t think Serena would lose until Lisicki’s final forehand skidded past her.

*****

—What doesn’t come across in this video is the thunderous quality of the shots these two were hitting. Their ground strokes were slugged with an ATP-like pace, and they echoed around the arena accordingly. What is the same, on second viewing, is the sense that Serena, no matter how well Lisicki was playing, was going to win anyway. She was up 3-0, 0-15 in the third, and when she hit a clean, calm forehand winner to go up 4-2, she seemed to have put the German in her rear-view mirror for good. But with nothing to lose, Lisicki didn’t back down, shot-wise or attitude-wise.

—Serena is the rare top player who will hit her ground strokes differently from one match to the next. She’ll use more topspin or less, slap her forehand or guide it, opt for an open stance or closed, take the ball near her body or farther away. It all seems to depend on her nerves and frame of mind. You can see from the first rally here that she’s hitting her backhand close to her body and forcing it—it’s not as natural as it can be. She has multiple opportunities to win points with it, but she keeps missing long. 

—Lisicki is one of a handful of players who can force Serena to play defense. On this day, she did two things especially well, and which made the difference: (1) She stayed in it mentally even after losing the second set and going down 0-3 in the third; and (2) She saved her best tennis for the very end. Judging by this clip, Lisicki was her usual hit-and-miss self until 3-4 in the third. I had forgotten that she went down 0-40 in that game—now you really had to believe Serena was going to win. But Lisicki came up with two of the shots of her life, a backhand winner followed by a forehand winner, to get back to deuce, and eventually held for 4-4.

—Serena always walks slowly between points, but most of the time it's the slow walk of authority. After Lisicki aces her at 3-4, it seems to me that Serena’s slow walk to the other side of the court includes a fair amount of doubt. This isn’t the self-doubt that creeps into her game at times; it’s the doubt that she can stop her opponent on this day. That’s extremely rare for her, but she admitted afterward that she knew Lisicki was going to be a tough out on grass, and she wasn’t stunned that she had lost. That’s also extremely rare. 

—This wasn’t the stare-down Serena we’ve seen when she falls behind (think of her last match of 2013, against Li Na); instead, she clapped for at least one of Lisicki's good shots. There’s more uncertainty than desperation in Serena, and it affected the way she played. By the last two games, she's no longer hitting the ball instinctively; she’s trying to balance control and aggression, and she ends up guiding her shots down the middle of the court. It was still enough to save a match point and earn a break point at 5-4, and if Williams had gotten out of that game, you have to think she would have won—Lisicki’s good form doesn’t often last for more than a few games. This time it was just enough to get her across the finish line.

—When she saw her last ball was a winner, Lisicki dove across that finish line and laid herself flat on the grass. The German's similarly dramatic celebration would annoy her semifinal opponent, Agnieszka Radwanska, who gave her the all-time brush-off handshake afterward. The word during the tournament was that Aga wasn't the only woman irritated by Lisicki's histrionics. But her reaction was appropriate here, an emotional exclamation point at the end of one of the season's most surprising afternoons.

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