Tennis Week article on Serena's withdrawal
Serena Withdraws From French Open
Serena Williams started the season with a spirited sense of closure. Digging down deep to summon the competitive character she showed in dominating tennis, Williams fought back from deep deficits in the semifinals and final to claim her seventh career Grand Slam championship at the Australian Open. Since that stirring triumph, the former No. 1 has struggled to finish what she starts.
Now, the woman who has created so many compelling championship climaxes won't be around to begin the season's second Grand Slam. The fourth-ranked Williams withdrew from Roland Garros today citing the sprained left ankle she sustained in the Amelia Island quarterfinal against Silvia Farina Elia on April 8th. Since retiring from that match, Williams has played once — suffering a 7-6(2), 6-1 loss to Francesca Schiavone in Rome last week in a defeat she declared was her "worst loss."
"I just guess I had a really bad day today," Williams said after the match. "Just one of those days that just wasn't going to work. I made too many errors maybe, and I just didn't feel anything today. I mean, nothing came from my legs, or from my arms."
If Williams' body felt numbed by Novocain her will to win appeared euthanized by expectations. The most surprising development in Williams' season since she stretched her Melbourne winning streak to 14 matches is not the lack of a title, it's the fact that the woman who was once tennis' fiercest fighter has been so willing to toss in the towel.
Serena has played 13 matches since claiming the Australian Open crown and has either retired or conceded a walkover in three of those encounters.
The inferno of intensity that once burned within, sometimes seems flicker like the flame of a match-head in Serena, who seems to struggle to find motivation in non-majors lately.
The 2002 Roland Garros champion owns a 25-5 record on the red clay and has been both triumphant and tearful in Paris. In her victory over Venus in the 2002 final, Serena spoke a few words in French in her victory speech prompting a receptive roar from the crowd. The following year, six points separated Williams from her fifth consecutive Grand Slam as the defending Roland Garros champion stepped up to serve holding a 4-2 lead in the third set of her compelling clash with Justine Henin-Hardenne, a singles semifinal showdown suddenly got very crowded.
Jeering Williams' correct questioning of inaccurate line calls and cheering her errors, some French fans forced their collective will on the match and Williams could not stand up to a stadium. Unnerved by the hostile howls echoing in her ears, Williams concentration cracked, her level of play dipped and she bowed 6-2, 4-6, 7-5 to eventual-champion Henin-Hardenne.
Tournament play has not always been a prerequisite for success for Williams.
Serena has shown up at the Australian Open — this year — and at Wimbledon in her two title triumphs without playing a single warm-up event and still went on to win those majors. The problem is crafting clay-court success demands more than desire, grit and guts — qualities Serena exuded as easily as perspiration pouring from her pores Down Under — it takes a willingness to work and grind through points, rallies and matches and with only four clay-court matches to her credit this year Serena has to know she's simply not prepared to make any push in Paris even if her ankle was not an issue.
Her strength of spirit as become a parachute Williams has relied on to bail herself out of tight spots, but some observers believe it's time to cut that cord and commit herself to the off-court work necessary to fuel her full flight in tournament play.
"I guess what I'm worried about is she's grown too reliant upon that (fighting spirit)," ESPN tennis analyst Mary Carillo said in a conference call with the media earlier this week. "All right, 'If I want it enough, that should do it!" I think you can only go to that well so many times. That well runs dry on you. You cannot fake the funk on clay — you just can't. It's gotten to the point with the Williams sisters where I listen to what they say and then watch what they do."
When she's fit and fully focused, the 23-year-old Williams brings more than championship credentials to the game, she brings one of the most explosive and entertaining styles to the sport, she brings athleticism and she brings an abundance of attitude. At her best, Serena competes with the ruthlessness of a hard-core competitor shooting for a shutout. Clearly, she hasn't been at her best this year. She didn't play her top tennis in Australia, but she fought harder than everyone she faced.
Since then, Serena seems to be fighting herself more than the opposition.
The three-time Key Biscayne champion arrived at the Nasdaq-100 Open seeking to add seventh Key Biscayne crown to the Williams sisters collection, but instead looked distracted, unsettled and unfocused in yelling at herself and tossing her racquet around before falling to Venus for the first time since the since the 2001 U.S. Open final.
Since that March match, Serena's played only four times. Despite her Roland Garros withdrawal, Serena will retain her top 10 ranking following the French fortnight. She insists tennis is still her top priority, she just doesn't play enough to prove it.
"Back in the day when Richard Williams was first introducing his daughters to us all he was always talking about how they were going to be rich and famous and they were gonna be No. 1," Carillo said. "He never talked about them being great. He talked about the money a lot. Maybe those two have reached all their dreams. Maybe I'm looking for something that maybe they're (not). That's fine. I've gotta deal with it. Maybe my expectations and desires is different from what they hold on to."
The fact that both Venus and Serena have been willing to sacrifice parts of their tennis seasons to pursue college educations and careers in fashion and acting is admirable. In a day when many aspiring junior players drop out of high school to attend tennis academies and pound the court for hours at a time, the Williams sisters have always been smart enough to see that there's much more to life than batting a ball over a net. It's quite possible that like Andre Agassi — who was notorious for taking every other year off from top-level tennis early in his career — the Williams sisters' interests outside of tennis may actually prevent burnout prolong their careers in the long run.
They've always played tennis on their terms, and while they were once ahead of the curve the Williams sisters are no longer first to the finish. The challenge Venus and Serena face now is that it's becoming increasingly more difficult to write your name on title trophies when you can't even make a mark in tournament draws.
To be fair, if should Serena regain her health, conditioning and sustain a consistent schedule, will still be one of the top contenders for Wimbledon and the U.S. Open this year. But playing part-time tennis no longer translates to full-time success on the tour and a sport which was once a two-player game with Serena and Venus facing off in six of eight Grand Slam finals in a period from the 2001 U.S. Open to the 2003 Wimbledon, the game has gotten more crowded and the sisters are struggling to survive the squeeze.
"They were divvying up the spoils all by themselves and that was only a couple of years ago. And now we're wondering..." Carillo said. "Serena keeps telling us tennis is her No. 1 priority and then they kind of sound like their father these days. Richard was always talking about how he wanted them out of the game in their 20s. I still think that they should dominate and that they can dominate. The big question mark is is that what are they thinking? I think at a certain point you've gotta decide do you pull up your socks or go home? I'd love to see them decide that's what they want more than anything else and do all the requisite work to get back there."
Serena often characterizes herself as an entertainer rather than an athlete. In the past, she's been able to turn it on like a star stepping onto the stage and shining beneath a bright spotlight. Now, you have to begin to wonder if she's getting sick of the show.