KEY BISCAYNE, Fla.—“I did the best that I could,” Serena Williams said after losing to Svetlana Kuznetsova, 6-7 (3), 6-1, 6-2, in the fourth round in Miami on Monday. “I can’t win every match.”

There’s no arguing with that last statement, of course. But Serena is one of the few athletes with the good fortune—or misfortune, depending on how you look at it—of actually having to remind us that she isn’t perfect. That’s because over the last four years, since her latest and greatest career renaissance began, there have been precious few matches that she hasn’t won. In 2015, she went 53-3 and lost just one of 27 at the Grand Slams.

With her loss to Kuznetsova, Serena has now suffered as many defeats in 2016 as she did all of last year, and she hasn’t won a tournament since the Western & Southern Open last August. Can we say, as one reporter did yesterday, that she is “struggling,” and that she has gone through a lot of “drama” since then? The woman who beat Serena on Monday wasn’t buying it.

“You say drama when somebody, No. 1—which is probably one of the greatest in the history of athletes— didn’t win four Slams," Kuznetsova said. "For me this would be miracle of the year.”


Touché: It’s inevitable that, from a normal player’s perspective, Serena will be judged unfairly. And even her record so far in 2016—final of the Australian Open, final of Indian Wells, round of 16 in Key Biscayne—would be a miracle for most.

All of that said, Serena was subpar in Miami, a tournament she has won eight times. She dropped a set to Christina McHale in her opener, and against Kuznetsova she appeared to be a step slow much of the time. This was the rare match where she won a close first set, seemed to find her form and then immediately lost it again. This was the rare match when there were no last-minute heroics, when she couldn’t find a way to put any extra pressure on her opponent to close it out, when she never shrugged off whatever was keeping her feet from moving.

It wasn’t the Florida humidity, Serena assured us.

“I’m used to this weather,” she said, “so for me the conditions were fine. This is what I practice in ... Physically, I’m fine. I just didn’t—I don’t know, I guess I didn’t move today.”

Caught in the Tide

Caught in the Tide

It also, according to Serena, wasn’t the stress that comes with being No. 1.

“I don’t think there is expectations,” she said. “I mean, there’s obviously expectations, but I think overall I put a lot of expectations on myself more than anything.”

So what was it? Kuznetsova implied that losing the Aussie Open final to Angelique Kerber may have hurt Serena’s confidence. That’s probably true; while Serena isn't any less motivated this year, she hasn’t been able to fully regain her winning ways since last summer. While she seems to have put her loss to Roberta Vinci at last year’s U.S. Open behind her, there has been an air of vulnerability, rather than invincibility, surrounding her since that match.

Yet it’s difficult to pin her so-called struggles on any one thing. Serena lost the Aussie Open final in large part because her opponent, Kerber, had the answer to her net-rushing game plan. She lost the Indian Wells final to Victoria Azarenka in part because she was surprised by her own nervousness. And she lost to Kuznetsova in large part because her movement wasn’t sharp.

It should be noted that Kuznetsova, Kerber and Azarenka had all beaten Serena before, and all are experienced, high-quality opponents who have won at least one Grand Slam. This has been a time of rank-and-file revolt on the WTA tour, when depth rather than dominance has been the watchword of the women's game. Over the last two years, the only seed who has seemed safe has been Serena. Now that revolt may finally have come for her.


For now, it’s impossible to say what Serena’s relatively slow start to 2016 means for her in the long run. All we can do is balance her own history against her “advanced” age of 34. Serena’s recent past says this dry spell will be short-lived: In 2014, she lost at three straight majors; just as we were wondering if her demise had begun, she reeled off four straight Slams. But Serena is also not 30, or 31, or 32, or 33 anymore, let alone 23; no one in the Open era has dominated at 34 or older.

Whether she admits it or not, Serena has used goals to spur her in the past. She wanted to tie and pass Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova at 18 majors, and she finally did. Now that she has 21, she wants to tie and pass Steffi Graf at 22. That alone should keep her focused until it happens; judging by her results this year, it may take longer than expected, but I think it will happen.

As Kuznetsova said of Serena on Monday: “She’s still No. 1 and she still plays great.  I don’t see much to be depressed about.”

In the short term, the more intriguing storyline may be what Serena’s lack of early-season dominance means for the tour as a whole. Does this provide an opening for Azarenka or Kerber or Garbine Muguruza, or someone else? Can one of them take advantage of an opening at the top? If the present really is changing—as Serena admits, even she can't win every match—who can turn herself into the future?