Serena Williams was hampered by injury as she lost to Karolina Pliskova in the semi-finals of the US Open.
For two weeks, Serena Williams has been searching for herself. It didn’t seem that way from afar; to the untrained eye, her slow walk to the US Open semi-finals was as seamless an operation as could be accomplished. After a shoulder injury marred her attempts at a second Olympic gold medal before forcing her to withdraw from Cincinnati two weeks before the US Open began, all the alarm bells surrounding the world number one’s arrival in New York were rapidly silenced.
Williams dealt with her shoulder problem by surprising herself with some of her best serving of the year, tearing through her nameless, seedless group of opponents to the last eight. Meanwhile, any possible question marks about her mental state were answered when she a looked a peaking Simona Halep in the eyes on Wednesday night’s quarter-final and, with a presidential air about her, calmly took her level above the former world number two’s limit.
Her actions were meeting the right ends, but even as people showered her with praise, she wasn’t convinced. In her great rise to the occasion against Halep, for example, she was extremely contained. To the outsider, the American seemed focused and zen, so it was strange when she said afterwards that she was puzzled by her own inability to properly react and emote.
“I was really rather calm today and not trying to be. I guess that’s just how I got out of bed this morning. I definitely wanted to do some more Come ons. I don’t know why. That’s weird.”
What Williams didn’t ever expect was to look up from her search for self and find parts of her identity being reflected across the net, but that’s what happened in Thursday night’s 6-2 7-6(2) defeat to Karolina Pliskova. Pliskova’s great impersonation of Williams didn’t last for more than a set, but she pulled it off so convincingly from the beginning that her opponent was rattled early in the match.
Despite Williams being the master of controlling the first stroke of every point, it was Pliskova, the best server not named Williams in over a decade, who held her first service game with an ace followed by two unreturnable serves, before breaking the Williams serve largely thanks to three screaming returns that clipped the baseline.
Although her high-level returning didn’t last, the American was offered dosage after dosage of her own medicine as she attempted to return the 24-year-old’s serve. By the end of the match, Williams only managed to return a paltry 54% of Pliskova’s serves between the lines and she found herself under attack on her own serve. Any player who has ever faced Serena knows the abject hopelessness of having their backs against the wall as they attempt to keep up with her serving. Except Williams has never played against herself before. Her response to this new situation was completely un-Serena as she rushed between points and lost the first set in a flash, downed by Pliskova’s serve and her own errors.
Serena spent much of the second set trying to artificially generate the passion that wouldn’t come naturally. She suddenly began to punctuate every stroke with a loud cry, roaring in both adulation and faux effort into the night. None worked. She had her half chances to turn the match around and failed to convert them, then after taking a mini-break in the second set tiebreak with some incredible defence, she had a real opening. She double faulted.
Williams’ loss is more consequential than even the failure to capture her 23th Grand Slam and stand alone in the Open Era. She is currently sitting on her 186th consecutive week at number one, a joint record with Steffi Graf. Her attempts will be scuppered by another German, Angelique Kerber, who celebrated her resulting ascension to the #1 spot after Serena’s loss by brushing aside Caroline Wozniacki to reach her third slam final of the year.
In the immediate aftermath of the defeat, instead of consulting with his charge, Serena’s coach Patrick Mouratoglou made a beeline for television to announce to the world that Williams had been suffering from an injury. “It’s impossible to compete without moving. That’s why she missed so much, so many unforced errors, was because she was so slow,” he said.
Williams, however, was more straightforward, correctly identifying Pliskova’s level and performance as factors alongside the fitness issue, The problem is, this isn’t the first injury for Williams. Despite the fact that she has only played a paltry eight tournaments in 2016, a damning factor in her loss of the number one ranking, it has been a year of ailments that haven’t been bad enough to scream about on their own but collectively provide endless courses of food for thought.
The American was also visibly compromised in the latter rounds of her French Open final with an adductor injury, while at the Olympics she fell to the lesser Elina Svitolina in a slew of double faults which would have been comical if not for the fact that they were brought on by the shoulder problems that forced her to withdraw from tournaments both before and after Rio. And on home soil this week, she found herself hampered yet again, this time with her knee.
This is a very significant group of different injuries and, despite the spectacle of any Williams loss being seen as a dramatic surprise, it shouldn’t really be. We cannot wonder at a 34-year-old competing supremely as if she’s 10 years younger and in her physical prime, yet be shocked in those moments when it appears her body isn’t nearly as receptive to it all as it once was.
During the second week, one of the most interesting and unsurprisingly insightful comments came from Williams herself when talking for the umpteenth time about her longevity. “Now I don’t really see when I’m going to stop because I’m just enjoying these moments out here, getting to break records that I didn’t even know existed or I didn’t even know were possible.” she said.
Williams is enjoying the final years of her career so much that even in the month she turns 35, she still doesn’t seem to have any clue how she would even leave the sport. But if these injuries continue to hamper her during big tournaments in 2017, and affect her deep in such events, that could be the one thing that gives her reason to reconsider. Because while Williams entered the semi-final searching for her real psyche, it appears she has left it having touched base with her real age.