We’ve seen this drama before. Last September 2015 and now in January 2016. We didn’t expect it, but perhaps we expected too much from Serena Williams.
She wilted under the Grand Slam final spotlight.
Perhaps most shocking of all was that she was being dictated to. The greatest women’s tennis player of all time was succumbing to the play of her opponent.
When January 1, 2016 began, we expected this to be a new, fresh start for Serena Williams. Her Australian Open start did not disappoint. Prior to Saturday, Williams had not dropped a set all tournament. It appeared that 2016 would start the same way 2015 did – with an Australian Open title.
Instead, it ended in the same way we saw 2015 end for Serena…with a loss.
When I’m playing at my best, it is difficult to beat me. ~Serena
On this night, Williams was definitely not at her best. Part of that was due to Angelique Kerber’s nothing to lose attitude and part was Williams’ poor play. From the first serve game of Kerber, something felt off with Serena. She wasn’t as focused as in her previous matches. The footwork, the serve, the court coverage – nothing was as it had been. Unforced errors, inconsistent serving, questionable tactics – actions that Serena usually forces on others, not the other way around.
Serena was searching for answers to Kerber’s game and finding none. Nearly every angle Williams would hit, Kerber would do her one better. Normally a Serena staple, it was Kerber who came up with a critical ace or serve to keep Williams at bay.
Angelique Kerber’s game didn’t overwhelm Serena. Not if you base it on stats alone. Stats won’t show how Kerber made Williams hit that extra ball, how she kept Serena from getting into any sort of rhythm like Williams is accustomed to. Kerber punished Serena’s hesitation with wicked cross-court winners and a strong return game.
Fans and broadcasters kept waiting for Williams to flip that switch, to raise her level like we’ve seen so many times before. It turned out to be a feeling…and a match…that was all too familiar.
Then again, it’s all too easy to compare this loss to Williams’ U.S. Open loss. Two different opponents, same outcome. Yet, we expected something different. In her post-match press conference, Serena addressed that notion, “It’s interesting. I mean, every time I walk in this room, everyone expects me to win every single match, every single day of my life.”
We expected it in September when she was going for the calendar year slam. And, we expected it yesterday. Williams’ stellar play in this tournament and throughout her career has made us believe the unbelievable. When it comes to tennis, whatever she wants to do, whenever she wants, we believe she can do it.
It’s an unrealistic expectation.
“As much as I would like to be a robot, I’m not and I try to,” Serena told reporters. A robot doesn’t blink. A robot doesn’t wilt under the spotlight. And yet, we still expected a robot-like performance from her on the way to another Grand Slam title. As one of the Williams is one of the me
Nothing short of perfection.
It’s a funny thing, perfection. Athletes, teams, coaches and organizations strive for it. They may say they don’t want it, but, in reality, perfection guarantees victory. Victory is success. There is no failure in sports perfection. Failure, however, teaches us to work on imperfections, be it individually or collectively. It shows us where we need to improve or adjust. The greatest of athletes recognize and embrace it. Failure is part of the process.
Yet, when it comes to sports, fans often cringe at failure. A favorite team or athlete has somehow become part of their very identity. Failure then becomes a reflection on them. Their team or athlete failed so they themselves are a failure. Fans sometimes lash out at their own team or an individual athlete in response. Fair or not, it’s become a natural reaction.
All because of perfect expectations in an imperfect reality.
Incredible sportsmanship's like pic.twitter.com/Sn2S7OTDO3
— WTA Reactions (@WTAreactions) January 30, 2016
In defeat, Williams showed a grace and class that reflected the heart of a champion who has learned from failures. Congratulatory of Kerber, Williams seemed genuinely happy on court after the match. It was as if the weight of expectations was lifted off, even in defeat.
Some didn’t expect this side of Serena.
I don't like seeing Serena as humble runner up, even though she played the role well.
— Ramona Shelburne (@ramonashelburne) January 30, 2016
“I was really happy for her,” Serena said when questioned about her emotions after the match. “She’s been around a long time. I’ve beaten her a lot. She played so well today. She had an attitude today that a lot of people can learn from – just to always stay positive and to never give up.”
If there is a perfect photo, this is the one [getty] #AusOpen pic.twitter.com/ADMQs7cZRu
— José Morgado (@josemorgado) January 30, 2016
More tournaments lie ahead before the next Grand Slam in May in Paris (French Open). Will she finally get that elusive #22 and catch Steffi Graf for #2 on the list behind Margaret Court? Given her track record, there is no doubting she could. Williams knows how to make adjustments. Improvement is a continual part of her process. She’ll come back more focused and resilient than ever.
But, for one Saturday night in Melbourne in January 2016, she blinked.