Let’s get one thing straight from the off. When I say Serena Williams is in a slump, I do not mean comparative with the rest of the WTA. She has not had some Bouchard-esk capitulation or a woeful year like Wozniacki. Simply by her own lofty standards, whenever the talismanic player goes seven months without holding a trophy above her head questions have to be asked.
Sunny Cincinnati was the last time the younger Williams sister emerged from a draw as the last women standing. A number of potential records and historical moments have flashed up before falling by the wayside since then – the calendar Grand Slam unquestionably being the most notable. So just how has it gone wrong for a player who, in all seriousness, is not playing poor tennis.
The tennis world has suffered more than its fair share of surprises in 2016 already, but few match the shock that greeted Serena’s semi-final exit from last season’s US Open. Crafty Italian, Roberta Vinci, was Serena’s semi-final opponent, with Simona Halep and Flavia Pennetta making up the numbers on the other side of the draw. Serena’s combined record against the three was 17-1, with Halep claiming the sole victory at the 2014 WTA Tour Finals. Only a fool would have bet against Serena not creating a piece of history at Flushing Meadows.
But, as you full well know, it did not go to script. After the heart-wrenching loss she declared that she would not return to action until 2016, citing an “injury” as the cause of this decision. She may well have had a minor niggle but the blatantly obvious reason for the break was to recover mentally from a draining year where she had the relentless weight of expectation pressing down on her shoulders. The big question would be how Serena would bounce back in 2016 from this career setback.
Before the clocks chimed twelve on New Year’s Eve, Serena had won her previous 15 tournament singles finals in a run dating back to August 2013 where she lost to Victoria Azarenka in the final of the Cincinnati Masters. That run came to a well-documented end at the hands of an inspired German by the name of Angelique Kerber.
The tennis world departed from Melbourne with dozens of silent questions. “What happened to Serena?” “Does she still have the motivation?” “How badly has she been effected by her failure to secure the calendar Grand Slam?” These were just a few being whispered in quiet corners by those who dared to question the world number one. Simply a blip against a player who player who performed out of her skin was the conclusion. Nothing to worry about was the ultimate verdict.
However, as the North American Masters swing comes to an end these questions are back, but now they are not confined to the quiet corners of tennis, barely whispered out loud. These are prominent questions at the forefront of the WTA Tour. Serena looked some way off of her best in her Indian Wells final defeat to an imperious Victoria Azarenka and, in losing, suffered her first consecutive finals loss since 2004. She followed that up with a shock third round defeat to Svetlana Kuznetsova in Miami, losing 6-1 6-2 after claiming the first set on a tie-break. Losing from a set up is simply not something that Serena Williams does.
The big question mark then is what is wrong with her? How has such an unstoppable force been halted by so many very movable objects?
The big elephant in the room is obviously Serena’s age. No one likes to suggest that Serena Williams’ powers may start to wain but the fact of the matter is, at 34, her days of significant improvement are behind her and the road is slowly coming to an end. Whether it is already starting to catch up with her is difficult to say. She does not visibly look any slower or less able to play her style of tennis – but perhaps the gap between her and her rivals is starting to shrink as others improve and she stagnates.
Mentality is such a major component of a tennis player’s repertoire. Serena has her moments but generally has more than enough mental fortitude. However, since the pressure of her calendar Grand Slam failure, there does seem to be notable signs of mental baggage. Lingering moments of self-doubt have become all-too noticeable in key moments. Normally you would back Serena to make a comeback from more or less any position and take control of tense encounters. 2016 has seen a reverse of this trend. Instead of grabbing the match by the scruff of the neck, Serena has looked nervy and tense, looking like she actually feels the pressure which she so commonly brushes aside.
Perhaps originally it was a mental hangover from the US Open disappointment. Perhaps now it is a multi-event hangover after Melbourne and Indian Wells. Perhaps it is simply a case of age playing its cruel part in proceedings. Or perhaps it is a combination of the three combined with some awe-inspiring play from her competitors. Whatever it is, the longer Serena is unable to claim a title the more this mental baggage is going to affect her. If she is to get those two Grand Slams to overtake Steffi Graf or even those four more to oust Margaret Court then she is going to need to find somewhere to dump her baggage. The glorious clay at Roland Garros seems like an ideal spot.