- The Washington Times - Monday, May 26, 2003

As the French — we will refrain from renaming it “Freedom” — Open gets under way, women’s tennis is still agog over the news: Serena Williams lost a match.


In the span of a month.

Of course, the fact that two relatively meaningless pre-Open defeats qualify as a major story only underscores the vast competitive gap between the top-ranked Williams and the rest of the Roland Garros field — including big sis Venus, who isn’t even No.2 anymore, let alone No.1A.

After topping her older sibling in three consecutive Grand Slam finals last season, Williams opened the year in grander fashion, capturing a so-called ‘Serena Slam’ by triumphing at the Australian Open. Running her 2003 record to a perfect 21-0, the Sister Superior even prompted talk of an undefeated season.

That discussion quickly ended, however, when Williams dropped a straight-sets head scratcher to Belgium’s Justine Henin-Hardenne in the final of last month’s Family Circle Cup.

Following Serena’s come-from-ahead loss to Amelie Mauresmo in Rome two weeks ago — her final clay court tune-up heading into Paris — No.2-ranked Kim Clijsters said that Williams’ struggles were nothing less than a point of light for the rest of the WTA tour.

“Amelie beat her now, beat Venus two weeks ago in Warsaw,” said Clijsters, a Belgian. “And then Justine beat [Serena] as well. So it’s definitely possible. It’s just a lot of players don’t really believe that they can beat the [Williams sisters].”

So, is the once-invincible Serena suddenly vulnerable? Short answer: Not really. Long answer: Not anymore than she’s ever been. Consider the circumstances of her two losses.

A power player in every sense of the term, Williams feeds on pace. Just ask Venus. At her best, Serena dictates points from start to finish — blasting first serves, taking the ball hard and early, moving her opponent along the baseline, crushing demoralizing winners.

Interrupt her rhythm, on the other hand, and Williams sometimes stumbles. In the first round of the Australian Open, lightly regarded Emilie Loit went at Williams the same way David Cone might approach Barry Bonds: With slices, spins, drop shots and off-pace balls. Anything to keep Serena guessing. Anything to induce a few errors.

The result? Williams barely escaped with a three-set win.

In April, Henin-Hardenne followed a similar plan. Aided by a power-blunting clay court — and her own considerable pop — she dismissed Serena in straight sets. A frustrated Williams even plopped a feeble backhand approach into the net on match point.

“I mix it up a little bit more, and it worked,” Henin-Hardenne said afterward. “You know, I did high ball, slice, fast ball, and I think that today I had to do this to win the match. Because when you play always the same speed, I think that she is No.1 in the world, for sure.

“This doesn’t change anything about the great champion that Serena is. But it means that today we could see that we can do these things against her, and she can be frustrated, too. I think it’s good for the other players that we can see that.”

For her part, Serena brushed off questions about Henin-Hardenne’s junkballing strategy, blaming her first loss of the season on an effort that was “about 9,000 notches” below her normal level.

I just didn’t play well,” she said.”I didn’t serve well, I didn’t return well, I didn’t hit well. You know, it’s just one of those days.”

Ungracious as that sounds, Williams was mostly right. In her loss to Mauresmo, for example, Serena won the first set in just 21 minutes, holding her French opponent to just four points in the first five games of the match.

Serving for the match at 5-4 in the second, however, Williams blew a backhand volley to surrender a break. From there, her concentration wavered. First serves went long. Winners caught the tape. With Mauresmo serving for the match in the third, Serena charitably committed four errors.

“Everything went wrong for me,” Williams said afterward. “I was making too many errors and struggling with my serve. I guess that sums it up.”

Indeed. No matter how well Serena’s opponents play — or how smartly they construct points — they still need Williams to make mistakes. Lots of them. Especially since her mysterious, untimely Grand Slam stomach ailments seem to be a thing of the past.

Such is the nature of Serena’s overwhelming talent — and why she should still be considered a strong favorite at Roland Garros. Her current “slump” notwithstanding.

“There was nothing in particular she did,” Williams said of Mauresmo following their match. “When I lose a match, it’s usually because of how I played. In the end, it’s better to lose in Rome than in Paris.”

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