9/11 was to be a significant date for American tennis player Serena Williams. A little more than 9 months ago, on this day, 33-year old Miss Williams was to defeat Italian Roberta Vinci in a straightforward semifinal to enter the final in New York – two matches away from winning the Calendar Grand Slam, all four majors in a year. She had won in Melbourne, won Paris again, won at Wimbledon by defeating upcoming Garbine Muruguza, and was now on the verge of making history. She had never won all four in the same year, despite twice doing the ‘Serena Slam’ – holding all four majors at once – which Novak Djokovic was going to accomplish in 2016 for the first time in men’s tennis since 1969.
On the balmy day at Flushing Meadows in New York, Serena Williams chugged through the first set. It was business as usual. And then, just like that, destiny broke up with her. Journeywoman Vinci, who was to lose to childhood friend Flavia Penetta in the final, took the next two sets to defeat a shell-shocked Williams. The dream was over. The to-be-greatest year in modern tennis was nipped in the bud; she was going to win as many Slams as Djokovic in 2015, 3 out of 4, and yet it felt like a failed season, a bad dream, a missed opportunity. Those who knew her well said 2016 was going to be a year where she would come at everyone with a vengeance, and even sweep the Olympic gold medal with the four Slams. Nobody would bet against her. Serena often makes her own success; when she loses, it’s not always because the opponent plays great tennis.
Four months later, Serena Williams, still on 21 Grand Slams, one behind all-time great Steffi Graff in the list, began to take Melbourne by storm again. She had gone from 16 to 21 in less than two years, and was suddenly in with more than a shout to end up as the most prolific women’s tennis player ever. On January 30th, 2016, the penultimate day of the Open, in the ladies’ final, where Serena had taken her rightful place, Angelique Kerber became the first player to defeat her in her last 9 Grand Slam Finals. This was only Serena’s fourth ever Slam final loss – and it again came in three sets. Once again, Serena had lost to a player who had just won her first major tournament. Once again, Serena was to be denied number 22 – so painfully close, yet outplayed, out battled, and not out of form.
Another four months later, on 4th June 2016, Serena Williams – the overwhelming favorite to defeat Muruguza in their second final against one another, the first on clay – lost in straight sets to the Spaniard. Muruguza, after her nerve-ridden Wimbledon 2015 final, had exacted revenge in the most glorious manner. Once again, Serena was outplayed; she didn’t lose, but was beaten fair and square. Earlier, this would not have been the case, like in the 2004 Wimbledon final against a 17-year old Maria Sharapova.
We remember these matches because they were rare; Serena Williams losing a match in major tournaments is always rare. At 34, she has reached a stage where losing a match is a crime, and a signal of her downfall. But she has never really fallen, and always gone through terrible streaks before turning it around to make it seem like she was just not in the mood earlier. The ball has always been on her racquet. But this time, it’s worrying for her that the ball is not even in her court. Two finals and one semifinal defeat later, she is left holding only a Wimbledon title, which could well go to another up-and-coming youngster this year if she falters. She seems to be losing belief in the fact that age is just a number, and the motivation to go past 22 Slams isn’t as much as it is just to reach the final and battle. She still plays at another level, but the level has begun to fall a match too early these days; earlier, she’d take her foot off the pedal after a Slam, losing in Masters events.
From being in with a chance to win all four in the year, Serena is now in the unusual position of needing to defend – for all her dignity – the only title she has in London. If she doesn’t, it will be the first time this decade where she will not be in possession of any of the big four. She will also want the gold medal in the Rio Olympics, but now it isn’t a foregone conclusion anymore. Anyone, from anywhere, could pop up and upset her on the big day – not just any day, but the big day.
And that’s worrying for a 34-year old woman who never quite seemed to be in the twilight of her career.