Roland Garros, 2015. The quarter-finals are already here, and it will be no surprise to many to see Serena Williams – world number one, and arguably the greatest female player ever to grace a tennis court – headlining the remaining competition.
And yet if you’ve been following the French Open, and you’ve watched Serena’s last three matches, you could be feeling shocked.
The Serena we’ve seen in the past three rounds has been a literal shadow of her usual, punishing self. Frustrated, erratic, with crazy shot making and little power, she has struggled like she hasn’t struggled in a long time. The usually dominant woman has put herself at the mercy of her opponents, feeding shanked miss-hits into their hands and visibly demonstrating her despair.
Yet not only has she won all three of her latest matches, but her opponents haven’t choked in the process. Everything has been Serena.
Williams has resurrected from the just about dead – thrice. How has she done it? How does she do it?
As she reigns Supreme Queen of the WTA, we can often forget an old nickname of this American superstar: The Comeback Queen. From match points down and games away from losses, Serena has laughed in the face of danger, rising from certain doom to the heights of victory.
By close examination, there are two specific reasons that Serena has been able to do this so consistently. The first is a fact of tennis life: That only Serena can truly beat Serena. In the history of the game, no female has struck a tennis ball with such sheer power, devastating placement and self confidence as Serena Williams. It’s not just an assumption, or even simply an observation, but it’s something that has come from the mouths of her closest competitors. Take, for example, Agniezska Radwanska – who, in 2013, stated that when Serena comes out playing her best, it doesn’t matter how well you’re playing. Because you’re going to lose.
The second reason for these fantastic fightbacks is Serena’s unrelenting desire to win. Almost as strong as her physical game, her passion and will to triumph haven’t ebbed over her eighteen years playing professional tennis. And it goes beyond the hungry look in her eyes. It’s the ferocity with which she fist pumps and encourages herself. The dedication which means that dropping a single game pains her.
And it’s the tireless effort with which she fights for every single point – even when she’s playing at 20%, and even when she’s a step away from losing.
“I don’t think anyone else in the world hates losing more than I do,” Serena once stated.
When you watch her compete, however well or terribly she’s playing, it’s blatantly obvious.
So, they are two of the biggest reasons for the general Serena comebacks. But what of this tournament? Staggeringly, we have watched the 19-time Slam champion pour scorn on learning lessons, playing no less than three straight appalling matches.
And fighting through every single one.
Coming into Roland Garros, Serena’s form was questionable. She appeared to have lost her physical edge, along with a large slab of her composure. Add to that the elbow injury that forced her to pull out of Rome, and things weren’t looking pretty coming into Paris.
Since she started her campaign a week ago, Serena hasn’t struck anywhere near top form. Her first round wobbles were disguised behind a seductive straight-sets scoreline. Yet when she dropped to another level against world number 105 Anna-Lena Friedsam – her form so tragic that she seemed to have lost presence of mind – her struggles became cringe-worthily real. Screaming, panicking, misjudging, mishitting, wailing and refusing to take advantage of her opponent’s average game, she lost the first set and looked ready for another shock early exit. However, in a style reminiscent of French Open times gone by, she scratched up an unlikely win.
That fact is important. It backs up the point that – while Serena is still getting by on the two factors stated above – there is another, third component that produces these survivals.
That component is the Serena Golden Rule.
Most people remember the 2011 French Open first round, and it’s for one reason only. Serena Williams, one set to the good, and heading to certain victory against home hope Virginie Razzano, was thrown by a controversial second set tiebreak. After dropping it, she fell into a state of misery, distress and frustration – similar to what we’re seeing today. She went down 5-0 before eventually losing the match, 6-3 in the third.
Despite the pain, that loss is one of the best things that ever happened to Serena. It was the springboard for a streak of legendary dominance that is still in process today. The losses now come few and far between.
But as the stress and the burdens mount, the losses must still come. To win and win and win again is tiring business. At some point – however good Serena is, and however much she bullies herself into winning – the streak has to snap. It’s nothing a simple break can prevent. She needs a clean, sharp loss, and then she can start rolling again – as proved back in 2011.
But for Williams, there is one exception to this invisible law: The Serena Golden Rule.
This is where Miss Williams comes as close to a loss as possible… but doesn’t actually lose. Hence, our next example. It also takes place at Roland Garros, this time in 2013. In the quarter finals, Serena was up against her old pal Svetlana Kuznetsova. No big deal. Racing through the opening set, she was halfway home at 6-1.
Then – disaster! After a magical bathroom break, Sveta returned to court and upped her game. And for 2013 Serena, not thrashing her opponent was not good enough. Her perfectionist nature backfired on her, and unlocked the rusty door for her own worst enemy – herself – to mess with the proceedings.
What ensued was a set and a half of emotion and errors and winners and more errors. Although Kuznetsova was playing well, Serena was beating herself. Memories were flooding back and haunting her. After the match she admitted she had been ‘afraid of her quarter final all night.’ She was openly nervous, disturbed, shrieking as she hit the ball, literally ‘executing’ shots, at times almost in tears…
And eventually, she won the war in three sets.
After that match, Serena rode straight on to French Open glory. It hadn’t been a loss, but it was as near as she could come to one. For the rest of the tournament, at least, it revived her game.
On Thursday, Serena won a match with many similarities to the Kuznetsova clash. And so history speaks in her favour. She may be paddling ferociously, her head barely above the surface of the deep… but the Serena Golden Rule is still intact.
It could prove to be her saviour, as the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen calls to her to claim it for a third time.