by: Peter Bodo, TENNIS.com
Serena Williams's loss to Justine Henin in a downright lousy match (6-4,6-3) at Roland Garros yesterday was, first and foremost, a reality check. And Serena reacted to it the way most of us would: She went into a mild form of shock, bewildered by the truth aimed at her face like one of those Henin whiplash backhands, or a garden hose filled with cold water.
Serena lost a very big match on a potentially career-defining stage, and she did it in very uncharacteristic fashion: She played within herself (and not in a good way), with a noticeable lack of fire and drive. She succumbed in a way nobody expected: meekly. She tried afterward to put it down to a routine case of the bad-day blues, claiming all Henin had to do to win the quarterfinal battle was show up. Which raises the question, Why didn't Serena show up?
You can go all psychological on this, but there was an issue nobody wanted to engage in a postmatch presser that was long on pop psychology and short on hard-nosed tennis analysis. Serena was going up against the best female clay-court player since Steffi Graf, playing on the closest thing she has to a "home court," on the surface that least suits Serena's game.
And Serena's critical mistake -- and many of us made it, too -- was thinking that her now mythic fighting ability and determination would kick in and see her through. That's the narrative Serena implanted with those huge wins in Australia and Miami (the latter over Henin, no less!). But those wins were on hard courts, and the reality of red dirt caught up with her here. She played like an American male player, a species not exactly known for its clay-court prowess these days. Why should we be surprised, or fall for any of that hooey about "all [Henin] needed to do was show up"?
Serena reminded me of the kind of person who, having neglected basics like good preparation and planning, keeps putting the inevitable at arm's length with convenient rationalizations, "Oh, I should have done this or that, but I'll be all right. Once the big day gets here, I'll dig down deep and I'll be just fine!"
That works for her a lot of the time, she's that good. But then there was yesterday. The big day got here and she was caught flat-footed; it was a deer-in-the-headlights moment. The sluggishness of the start and the stilted ambience were fitting. Serena seemed to have no game plan, no fire, a low threshold of frustration. It didn't look like Serena wanted to play, much less fight -- and never mind win. That's what pressure does to you, and pressure is something Serena hasn't been subject to recently.
And all this, I suspect, had a lot more to do with the one factor nobody seemed to take into account: this was Henin on clay. And that's not a job any woman would undertake with relish and enthusiasm.
Simply Stunning, Simply Serena
57 Consecutive Weeks as World #1
Olympic Gold Medalist ('00 Doubles w/ Venus)