Tennis

Serena offers us very different look

Richard Evans on Serena Williams' first-round exit at the French Open
Richard Evans on Serena Williams' first-round exit at the French Open
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Greg Couch

Greg Couch has been a national columnist at AOL Fanhouse and The Sporting News and an award-winning columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times. He was featured twice in "Best American Sports Writing" and was recognized by the US Tennis Writers Association for best column writing and match coverage. He covers tennis on his personal blog. Follow him on Twitter.

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Serena Williams doesn’t crumble. She intimidates, she bullies, she rages. But she doesn’t act the way she did Tuesday in the first round of the French Open. After choking away the second set against a no-name player ranked out of the top 100, Williams sat on her chair before the final set and started sobbing.

2012 French Open

2012 French Open

Right there in the middle of the match. Williams was crying. She covered her face with a towel. She grabbed tissue and blew her nose.

Who was that, anyway? Williams went on to lose a three-hour match, a marathon where guts usually wins. Williams, two points from winning, went on to lose to 111th-ranked Virginie Razzano, 4-6, 7-6 (7-5), 6-3.

In the 47th major championship of her career, Williams had lost in the first round for just the first time. It was also just the fourth time she had lost to a player out of the top 100.

“Yeah, it is disappointing, but it’s life,’’ Williams said. “Things could be a lot worse. I haven’t had the easiest past six months. Nothing I can’t deal with.’’

Perspective. In the past two years, Williams suffered with life-threatening blood clots in her lungs, and, she said, she also stepped on broken glass in a restaurant, leading to foot surgery.

So, yes, losing a tennis match isn’t the worst thing in the world. But Williams said she had to look back, figure out what she did wrong Tuesday and make sure it doesn’t happen again. It sounded like a simple mathematical formula.

Maybe it is. Maybe it was just one bad day. But it looked just too different, too inexplicable. It looked like the start of Williams getting old.

Now 30, Williams lost early at the Australian Open, too. She has been dominant through the spring, crushing No. 1 Victoria Azarenka and No. 2 Maria Sharapova. And then, Tuesday in Paris, she crumbled. The first sign of age in tennis is inconsistency. One day the legs are working, and the next day they aren’t.

It works the same with emotions. A young player can swing away free with nothing to lose and a seemingly unlimited future ahead. You start choking when you want something too much, think about it too much.

And that can happen when you know there aren’t many chances left.

It’s difficult to say for sure how long her career will continue. Tennis has never seen anyone like Serena Williams, no one that big and muscular and powerful. Players are bulking up to keep up with her and with her sister, Venus. But Serena is still the test case.

This isn’t to say that she’s done. She’s not. She’s still the best player in the world, still will win more majors. But more and more, she is likely to be inconsistent.

Williams is used to pounding people off the court. She shows up. She wins, if she wants. And in majors, she wants.

She has annoyed tennis fans because, through the years, she doesn’t credit her opponents when they beat her. Instead, she usually just says she had an off day. That has never bothered me, actually.

It is exactly the right attitude. And if it doesn’t seem polite enough, well, too bad. It is the mentality of a tennis player that you are standing alone on a court, without help from teammates, and all problems and issues are your responsibility. So why should Williams think someone else is in charge? (Besides, Roger Federer does the same thing.)

But if Williams gets to the point where she doesn’t think she can just walk out and bully an opponent, then her opponents are going to notice that, feel it and play off it, too. For some reason, the 111th player in the world thought she could win a match like this against Williams.

As for the tears, well, Williams has always been emotional. But that emotion has almost always been productive, directed at the other side of the net, or at a line judge, or at a chair umpire. It is usually fire. She sets up problems, and then knocks them out of the way.

This time, she was directing doubts and emotions at herself.

Now, it’s also possible something else was happening, something personal that she didn’t share. She pulled out of her most recent tournament with a sore back but said it was 100 percent Tuesday.

And more and more, she has started to show her emotions. At the US Open last year, she sat on her chair and basically whined at the chair umpire for being an ugly human being. Williams lost that match to Samantha Stosur. A few years ago, Williams was called, correctly, for foot-faulting at the US Open and then threatened the line judge, vowing to take the ball and shove it down the judge’s throat.

Last year, Williams returned to Wimbledon from injury, won a match and then broke down in tears afterward. That was actually a beautiful thing to see, a soft side. Williams is complex and human, and it all works together for her beautifully.

But on Tuesday, it looked different. It wasn’t anger or joy. It looked like weakness.

Mostly, it didn't look like Serena Williams.

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