May 30, 2008

Serena falters at French Open....

Lack of confidence confounding in Serena's loss
by: Greg Garber (

PARIS -- The Williams sisters have always been shrouded by the air of enigma.

Serena and Venus learned the game of tennis on the public courts in Compton, Calif., a hard, hard place more infamous for gang violence. They bypassed the traditional junior tennis system and became Grand Slam champions, fixtures in the top 10 for a decade now, on their own terms. Just when you think you've got them figured out, they have the capacity for great surprise. Just when it seemed injuries and outside interests had reduced their careers to playing character roles, Serena won the Australian Open last year and Venus took the title at Wimbledon. On Friday, it happened again -- but not in a good way.

Serena, who before the French Open said she had experienced her best preparation since winning the event in 2002, is, shockingly, out of the tournament. With the sudden retirement of Justine Henin, Serena was among the favorites. And yet, she lost her third-round match 6-4, 6-4 to Katarina Srebotnik, a Slovenian who has never reached a Grand Slam quarterfinal. On the Richter scale of surprise, this one was about a 7.8.

Oracene Price, who is listed as Serena's coach and advisor in the WTA media guide, is also her mother. Standing in the press center outside the interview room where her daughter had just shed little light in her postmatch autopsy, Price seemed baffled. Serena, she said, had not been herself since the tournament began."She doesn't have the mind-set right now," Price said, shaking her head. "Her confidence isn't there. I'm really trying to figure this out."

A few minutes earlier, Serena had been asked if "puzzled" accurately described her state of mind. "No," she said, "I'm not puzzled at all. I just don't want to be here." It was probably the most honest, sincere thing she said. "I felt like I was able to get into it," Serena said, "but I felt like I missed a lot of easy shots and a lot of key points that I felt like could have turned the match around. I wasn't able to capitalize on a lot of that." True enough. Serena, playing on the sticky, shifting surface that diminishes her powerful game, seemed more awkward than usual. Her game was disjointed; everything she did seemed a tad late -- like a bad lip-synching effort.

Srebotnik, a steady player with a good forehand, is a solid clay-court player. She stayed on the baseline mostly, and kept the ball in play and moved forward when the opening presented itself. Serena tried to force the issue too often at net and wound up losing 14 of 21 points going forward, the difference in the match.
Mary Joe Fernandez, who reached the 1993 final here at Roland Garros, broadcast the match for ESPN. "It looked like she had no faith in her groundstrokes, especially her forehand," Fernandez said. "I think she came in so often because she didn't want to hit from the baseline."

Explained Srebotnik, "Serena is a big hitter, and she likes to have the perfect hitting zone. So I tried to mix it up with slice on my backhand side and tried to move her there. And then on the forehand side, I tried to play aggressive and go to the net as soon as I could. "That was the rhythm that I was trying to break her, get her on the wrong foot and stuff like that."

The critical point in the ninth game of the second set came from an ill-advised drop shot, which found the net, and Williams lost her serve. She survived two match points, but she missed wide with a running cross-court forehand and lost to Srebotnik for the first time in four matches.

Williams came to Roland Garros with a sterling record of 23-2 and a 9-2 on clay, but she withdrew from her quarterfinal match in Rome two weeks ago with a back injury. On Friday, she said it wasn't a factor. "I don't think that had any effect at all," Serena said. "It's almost perfect.

After a year in the wilderness outside the top 40, the Williams sisters both returned the WTA's top 10 last year and remain there today. They have won a total of 14 Grand Slam singles titles, and it would be foolish to believe that a 15th -- when health, motivation and the local atmospheric conditions allow -- is out of the question. As soon, for instance, as next month's Wimbledon.

"She's really hurting about this one," Price said. "I really think she'll come out swinging. "Maybe that's a good thing." Serena and Venus were taught by their parents to be inquisitive, independent and well-rounded. While they catch a lot of flak for not always being focused on the ball in play, they do, as Price said, "have a lot going on in their lives." Certainly, outside events have conspired to reduce the force of their careers, but isn't it possible that the broad palette of interests has extended those careers? Serena is 26 and Venus turns 28 next month. Henin and Kim Clijsters, who both won Grand Slams and reached the No. 1 ranking, left the game at the ages of 23 and 25, respectively. The Williams sisters, Price said, won't be retiring any time soon.

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