This is no time for excuses or fake injuries for Serena Williams. She lost because she lost. She blew a lead to Victoria Azarenka in the U.S. Open semifinals Thursday night because she doesn’t intimidate good players anymore.
Williams is no longer the best player in the world. She lost 1-6, 6-3, 6-3 to Azarenka, who will play Naomi Osaka in the finals.
I said not to blame fake injuries, but you could blame Covid-19. Williams ran out of energy early in the second set and needed a U.S. Open crowd to carry her. Instead, she was in empty Ashe Stadium. She’ll need a crowd the rest of her career.
But this is reality-only time for Williams. If she wants to win more majors — she’s one short of Margaret Court’s record 24 majors — then she’s going to have to accept some cold, hard facts. Either that, or she can just keep slipping . . . slowly . . . down . . . from the mountaintop.
In two weeks she’ll be 39 years old. She hasn’t won a major in 3½ years. And while she still has the ability to win another one, she’ll never be the favorite again.
On Thursday, she jumped ahead 4-0 in the first set while playing about as well as she ever has. Her strategy was clearly to go for the knockout punch at the beginning. She was swinging at everything as hard as she possibly could and everything was going in.
But by early in the second set, she started looking more careful. Her strokes slowed down in the middle of the shots. At the time it looked like some sort of odd strategy, but soon it became apparent:
Williams was out of energy. For most of her career, if she had jumped out to a commanding, physically dominant lead like that, her opponent would have crumbled and Serena could’ve coasted to the finish line.
That’s what she was shooting for Thursday. But instead, Azarenka started jumping around and pumping herself up. She had survived, mentally, Williams’ best. And Williams didn’t have it to give anymore.
By late in the second set, Williams, without energy, went into some tricks and games. She started scream-grunting as loudly as possible during points, partly to distract Azarenka and partly to scare her.
But Williams doesn’t scare good players anymore. In the second game of the third set, after a rally that had an exhausted Williams changing directions, she stopped, bent over, looked at her left ankle for a while, and then called out a trainer.
I wouldn’t want to say that Williams faked that injury, but I will say this:
She faked that injury.
That’s my opinion, anyway. It was basically the tennis equivalent of MIke Tyson biting Evander Holyfield’s ear, trying something, anything, out of desperation because otherwise the outcome was inevitable.
Williams was able to take a lengthy, full medical timeout in the middle of a game. The trainer unwrapped her ankle and then re-wrapped it. And it was the perfect attempt to stop Azarenka’s momentum, wreck her focus and also to rest Williams’ weary legs.
Azarena sat in her chair at the side of the court, closed her eyes and meditated, breathing slowly. The TV cameras showed a bug landing on her face and crawling across her nose.
She didn’t notice. Not the bug and also not Williams’ tactics.
Williams needs to learn some lessons from this U.S. Open. First off, just being real again: If she wants to win majors and be the best player in the world again, then she’s going to have to get in wickedly good shape.
She’s not there now. She’s in fine shape for a normal human being, but not not in the kind of shape you need to be in if you want to be 39 years old and winning major tennis championships.
Now, she’s at least one step slower than she was when she was young. And while she’s still the strongest player on tour, that’s just not enough anymore to beat top players. She can’t outmuscle them, can’t outscream or scare them.
She’s going to just have to outplay them. She’s going to have to start training more, too.
She can start her workouts in a few days, after her ankle injury heals.