First Ball In, 6/28: Saturday Questions

Saturday, June 28, 2014 /by
AP Photos
AP Photos

WIMBLEDON, ENGLAND—”These girls, when they play me, it’s like they’re on the ATP tour.”

That was the theme of Serena Williams’ press conference after her wild and surprising three-set loss to Alizé Cornet here on Saturday.

“I think everyone in general plays the match of their lives against me,” Serena went on. “So I’m pretty sure that the next match, it won’t be the same. So I just have to always, every time I step on the court, be a hundred times better. If I’m not, then I’m in trouble.”

Serena said she felt like she didn’t play badly. She thought she was better, certainly, than she had been at the French Open. She didn’t know what happened exactly today.

“I thought I was doing pretty decent,” she said. “I think I’m going to have to watch this film and see what I can do better and what went wrong.”

Serena was definitely pretty decent in the first set, which she won 6-1. But as in other matches recently, her serve wasn’t up to its usual standard of intimidating excellence—it wasn’t THAT serve, the one she once praised as “mean.” Serena hit just three aces against Cornet, was broken five times, and couldn’t rely on it to bail her out down the stretch. 

Cornet, as Serena said, played well. "Way better from the beginning of the second set,” the Frenchwoman said. But she denied that this was the match of her life. 

“On the contrary,” Cornet said, “I cannot say that I played my best tennis today really. In Dubai I did. It was a perfect match.”

Cornet beat Serena in Dubai, and she believes she has always matched up well with her. This would help explain how Cornet could lose to Taylor Townsend, who is ranked 146 places below Serena, at the French Open last month.

“I played against her a lot of times before,” Cornet said of Williams, “and it was always pretty tight matches. I think maybe she doesn’t like so much the way I’m playing. I’m pretty creative on the court, doing some different things.”

Cornet said she decided to “be herself” in this match, which meant mixing in drop shots and letting her creativity flow. Some commentators have suggested in the past that the drop shot could be a good play against the Serena, who will be 33 in September. That was the case today: Cornet yanked Serena up and back, and finished with the same number of winners as her, something you wouldn’t expect on grass.

The match reminded me in many ways of the French Open men’s final, with Serena in the role of Novak Djokovic. Both won the first set, but when they faced adversity in the next two sets, neither reacted well. Serena and Novak both showed a lot of negative body language, and both waited to gather themselves until the match was virtually over. Down 2-5 in the third, Serena calmed down, quieted down, and started smacking winners with no fuss. But as with Djokovic in Paris, it was too late; her nerves were still there when she tried to break Cornet at 4-5, and she opened the game with two easy errors that helped Cornet relax.

“She’s human, too,” Cornet said, “and I tried to think of that.”

Serena has now lost in the first week at all three majors this year. In one sense, she’s right, the three women who beat her—Ana Ivanovic, Garbine Muguruza, and Cornet—played well to do it. But this is a vicious cycle that every aging champion faces: The more the other players see you lose, the more confident they’re going to be that they can beat you, too. On court today, Serena seemed to have a hard time handling that fact. She says she needs to play 100 times better to win; I’d say, like Djokovic, she needs to stay calmer and more positive when she starts to lose. There's going to be more adversity where this came from.

Cornet said she knew she could close out this match, because she had already done it once before this year. Serena's problem isn't that her opponents are playing out of their heads. It's that more of them now have the confidence to play their normal, unintimidated games against her, the games they use to beat other players. As Cornet said today, she just tried to be herself out there, to "keep it simple."

And she was herself, both with her game and her personality. Cornet is one of the game’s most emotional and expressive players; not surprisingly, she finished the upset of the tournament with the reaction of the tournament. When Serena's last backhand found the net, Cornet jumped, shrieked, danced, pounded her fist on her heart, and kissed the grass. And when she talked to the BBC after she came off court, she sounded a little like Sally Fields accepting an Oscar:

“I can’t believe I did it—ME. Wow!”

*****

“It’s been an easygoing couple of weeks at Wimbledon so far,” Roger Federer said after cruising past Santiago Giraldo, 6-3, 6-1, 6-3, under the Centre Court roof on Saturday. What has there been to worry about? Today Federer hit twice as many winners as errors, faced just two break points, and was an impressive 15 of 23 at the net. In three matches, Federer has yet to have his serve broken or be pushed to a tiebreaker. 

By the middle of the third set, Giraldo had given up all hope and was in exhibition mode, trying a hot-dog drop shot-lob combination and losing the final game in about a minute. That was roughly the way the Colombian, who may have had his country’s soccer team on his mind today, started the match. Federer, as is his early-round tradition, broke Giraldo in his opening service game and never looked back. There were a lot of quality shots from Federer, but not a lot of competition for him.

This all fit into another, more recent tradition of Federer’s. Over the last few years, he has often looked masterly through the first three or four rounds of a Grand Slam, only to fall to earth when the competition gets stiffer later. At the last three Australian Opens, he has had his fans talking like it’s 2006 all over again during the first week; all three times, he ended up losing in the semifinals, either to Rafael Nadal or Andy Murray. At the French Open this year, Federer dropped one set in the first three rounds, before losing to Ernests Gulbis in the fourth.

Even at last year’s U.S. Open, which is mainly remembered for his disastrous, “shell-shocked” loss to Tommy Robredo in the fourth round, Federer opened with three frictionless straight-set wins. Just like this week, he wasn’t pushed to a tiebreaker in any of the nine sets he played in those matches. The same happened at the Open in 2012, before his quarterfinal loss to Tomas Berdych. In the one major he has won in the last four years, Wimbledon in 2012, Federer was two points from defeat to Julien Benneteau in the third round.

Is Federer hurt by how easily he makes his way through the early rounds? Is it counter-productive that in these matches he can still meet players who are in awe of him? Of course, he doesn’t want a test that turns into a defeat. And it’s not as if Federer is going to forget what a tough match feels like. But I think a player does want to be forced to compete, to lose his serve, to be shown what he needs to improve as the tournament goes on. So far Federer hasn't.

On Tuesday, he’ll play Tommy Robredo again. Federer obviously looks ready, and I wouldn’t expect him to have the same problems on grass against the Spaniard that he had at Flushing Meadows last year. But I probably thought the same thing at the Open last year. After his three early wins there, Federer might have, too.

*****

They say your playing style mirrors your personality. If so, I’d say Genie Bouchard’s personality, or at least the personality that she puts out to the public, is best represented by her return of serve. It’s a shot of vaulting ambition. She launches herself into it and leans as far forward as she can to make contact. This is a young woman who doesn’t let things come to her.

We’ve heard that Bouchard wants it all now; she doesn’t want to wait for her Grand Slam titles. On most levels, that’s great. It’s an attitude that has already established her as a regular in the second week at Grand Slams. Today Bouchard straight-setted Andrea Petkovic, a woman who has been in the Top 15 and who had beaten her in their previous matches, as if it were a routine, run-of-the-mill win. In keeping with her seemingly charmed life, Bouchard then watched as the woman whom she thought would be her next opponent, Serena Williams, was knocked out of the tournament. Who knows, maybe her quarterfinal obstacle, Maria Sharapova, will be moved out of the way for her as well.

But what happens if the Grand Slam titles don’t come now, or soon? Bouchard is a solid ball-striker and a composed player—she doesn’t usually beat herself. But she also wants to play one way: Full speed, with the flattest, hardest shots possible. When Petkovic blasted today, Bouchard blasted back; there was no second gear or finesse in evidence.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; women win Grand Slams by hitting winners. But it also would seem to leave Bouchard open to tactical adjustments by her opponents. I can see the other women, once they know her game, adding a slice here, a moonball there, mixing placements and trajectories. And she's been known to overhit herself out of matches in the past.

But there's no denying her meteoric, and seemingly unproblematic, rise thus far. Bouchard has officially launched herself; we’ll see where she lands.

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