A unified theory of why Serena Williams is struggling in Slam finals

A unified theory of why Serena Williams is struggling in Slam finals

“I could have just been more Serena today”: Is it the record? The moment? The opponent? All three?

NEW YORK—“Downs and downs and downs and downs.”

That’s what a disappointed Serena Williams, speaking to her team in Arthur Ashe Stadium on Saturday night, said her career mostly consisted of these days. She was exaggerating, of course, but her frustration at losing her fourth straight Grand Slam final was understandable. Once upon a time, her ability to win these biggest of the big matches was her calling card, a talent that was virtually unmatched by even her most illustrious WTA peers of the past.

From 1999 to 2015, Serena went 21-4 in major finals. Two of those losses came to her sister Venus, and another to Maria Sharapova—Serena was so incensed by the latter defeat that she’s still avenging it 15 years later. She might lose in Wuhan or Cincinnati or Madrid, but it hardly mattered because at the Slams she rose to the occasion—or you might say the occasion rose to her—virtually every time.

Now when we talk about Serena, we say the opposite. We wonder why she can’t win the big ones. We wonder why she looks so good in the matches leading up to the finals, and then can’t get over the finish line. Starting with her loss to Angelique Kerber at the 2016 Australian Open final, she’ s 2-6 in major finals; since coming back to the tour after having a child, she’s 0-4, and 0-8 in sets. She has lost to fine players—Kerber, Naomi Osaka, Simona Halep and now Bianca Andreescu. Each of them will likely be in the Hall of Fame, and Osaka and Andreescu could end up with double-digit major totals themselves. But none of them yet approaches Serena’s career accomplishments or aura.


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Against Andreescu, Serena seemed determined not to get off to the type of passive, slow, nervous start that doomed her in her last three Slam finals. She was active and aggressive and vocal in her opening service game—“She’s going big early,” Chris Evert said in the ESPN booth. But to me, that energy seemed to have the opposite effect of what she intended.

By the end of the first game, she had already made a slew of errors. More ominously, she was pressing on her serve. Instead of her normal fluid motion, she was trying too hard to generate pace. When Serena double-faulted to lose the first game, she found herself in an early hole again, and she never found her serve after that. She made just 44 percent of her first serves—a jaw-dropper of a stat and the most crucial of the match—and double faulted eight times. In general, even when Serena has been off in other parts of her game, her serve has been there for her. Tonight her woes with that shot torpedoed her confidence in the rest of her game.

“I was thinking, ‘OK, Serena, you didn’t miss a serve, you lost maybe twice in the whole tournament, and you didn’t hit a first serve in today,” she said. “That was obviously on my mind, like how do I play at a level like this in a final?”

Serena rightly credited Andreescu’s fearless, excellent all-around play. She seems to see a lot of her own passion and intensity in Bianca—“I think we are really similar in terms of we both are fighters, and we both are really intense.” She also credited Andreescu’s powerful returns in particular. They landed at Serena’s feet and pressured her to try to take more chances on her serve.

“I think Bianca obviously played well,” Serena said. “I think her returns make me play better and puts pressure on my serve. At the same it’s inexcusable for me to play at that level.”

Then, suddenly, down 3-6, 1-5, 30-40, championship point, Serena’s game went from first to fifth gear. After reflexing a winning forehand return on match point, Serena couldn’t miss. Her comeback was reminiscent of many of Novak Djokovic’s; having essentially lost the match, she relaxed, stopped worrying, and just swung. For the next four games, she showed that, like Djokovic, there’s no one better at swinging and hitting a tennis ball than Serena.

Andreescu didn’t do much wrong over that span, because Serena didn’t give her the opportunity to do anything at all. Once she caught up, though, and began to believe she had a chance again, the errors reappeared. And well as Serena played during her second-set comeback, she never raised her emotional temperature to the boiling point, never let loose with an arena-rattling scream and a staredown (at least that I saw).

“I believe I could have played better,” Serena said. “I believe I could have done more today. I believe I could have just been more Serena today.”

“I honestly don’t think Serena showed up. I have to kind of figure out how to get her to show up in Grand Slams final.”

Which brings us back to the original question: Why isn’t Serena showing up in these matches? Many say it’s because she’s too worried about tying Margaret Court for the all-time Slam record with 24. Yet Serena herself doesn’t entirely buy that theory. She knows, and we know, that she doesn’t need to win 24 or 25 Slams to be considered the greatest.

“I’m not necessarily chasing a record,” Serena said. “I’m just trying to win Grand Slams. It’s definitely frustrating, you know. But for the most part I just am still here. I’m still doing what I can do.”

She would obviously like to finish with 25, and be clear of everyone. But what she wants most is simply to win Slams, regardless of numbers or records, because those are the moments she has always loved most, and those are the moments that all professional tennis players strive to achieve. She doesn’t need to think about the record to tighten up or overhit; the knowledge that she’s just two sets from having that Slam-winning feeling again seems to be enough.

“I’m like, so close, so close, so close, yet so far away,” she said.

Another theory posits that Serena isn’t properly tested in the rounds leading up to the final. And it’s true, her semifinal wins at Wimbledon and the Open, over Barbora Strycova and Elina Svitolina, were blowouts. But at Wimbledon this year she had to fight through two three-setters to make it that far, and at the Open she had an early scare from Caty McNally that got her blood flowing. In the past, those types of challenges were enough to make her match tough. There’s obviously something different about finals for her right now.


More reaction to Serena's fourth consecutive final-round loss at the majors:


Two other, more obvious theories make more sense.

The first is Serena’s age; she’ll be 38 at the end of this month. Her fellow 38-year-old legend, Roger Federer, has had his own struggles of late. Since last year’s French Open, when Serena returned, Federer hasn’t won a major, either, and has reached just one final. Last year at the US Open, Serena lost to Osaka, a 21-year-old who modeled her career around her. This year, in Andreescu, she lost to someone who wasn’t even born when she won her first major. Tennis may be aging, but it’s still good to be young.

The second plausible theory has to do with Serena’s opponents. In a final, you’re playing someone who has built up a head of steam for two weeks. At Wimbledon, that was Halep, who played the match of her life to win the title. Tonight, it was Andreescu. The teen was gutsy in the first set, when she took the rallies to Serena, and calm in the second set, even when the pro-Serena crowd was so loud that she had to plug her ears. Nothing fazed Andreescu; even her understated celebration was perfectly attuned to the moment, the opponent, and the audience.

Serena recognized it. When she loses, Serena will often say that her opponent played “out of her mind”—and often it’s true. But tonight she complimented Andreescu’s attitude and playing style more fully and specifically.

“I felt like Bianca plays well under pressure,” she said. “…She goes out and she plays hard. She does what she does best, and that’s move up to the ball, that’s hit winners, that’s play with a ton of intensity.’

High praise indeed, from someone who recognizes a champion when she sees one.

“I guess I got to keep going if I want to be a professional tennis player,” Serena concluded tonight. “And I just got to keep fighting through it.”

The 2020 Australian Open must feel like it’s a long way away to her right now. But if her older sister can keep going, why can’t she? Serena is nearly 38; she doesn’t win Slam finals the way she once did; and she can’t quite reach what was once thought to be an unreachable record. At heart, though, she’s a tennis player, and she has been since before she can remember. And tennis players keep playing tennis until they can’t anymore. As Serena showed in the second set today, when everything is clicking, she can still play it better than anyone.

Serena has had her share of downs—and downs and downs and downs—lately, but she’s had way too many ups in her career not to believe she still has a few left in her.


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