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Serena Williams fell behind Kristie Ahn in the first round of the French Open and fought and scrambled and toughed it out. She came back, barely won the first set. And then? Blowout.
“The biggest difference was just confidence,’’ Williams said after her 7-6, 6-0 win. “I just need to play with more confidence, like I’m Serena. So that was it. I just started playing like that.’’
Like I’m Serena? Yes, at 39 years old, she can still do that against someone like Ahn, who is ranked just outside the top 100 in the world. Ahn crumbled mentally because to her Serena is Serena. But it’s a curious thing to see Serena have to talk herself into being Serena, have to remind herself who Serena is, or was. In a lot of ways, it doesn’t come naturally anymore.
You hate to see a great athlete stick around too long and be there just for show. Serena is not there yet. She can still win more majors. But if she wants to do that, then she’s going to have to get an understanding of who Serena is. And by that, I mean 39-year-old Serena.
This is an uncomfortable moment in her career. She hasn’t won a major in nearly four years and all of her fans still think of her as the best player in the world, which she is not. Williams herself might be in denial. And opponents who are not near the top can still fold when playing a tennis god.
Any parent knows that at some point, your kid is locked into your mind at a certain age. So your 20-year-old, for example, still is that 5-year-old on the swingset in the park.
Athletes lock themselves into their heydays. Old boxers are notorious for that, sticking around way too long because they think they still are the boxer they once were. You’ll see what I mean if Mike Tyson actually comes back.
Serena is not 19-year-old Serena anymore, not 29-year-old Serena. She’s not even anywhere near what she was as 34-year-old Serena. So every major championship now turns into a celebration of Serena for the first week against the Kirstie Ahns of the world and then a disappointment in the end against the top players. Usually that comes with some excuse attached, whether a hard-to-believe injury or a mean umpire.
It’s starting to get sad watching Williams chase after Margaret Court’s record of 24 major championships. She has been stuck on 23 for so long.
There is nothing wrong with 39-year-old Serena, other than she’s not at an age that usually wins tennis majors. Serena is not just a typical major-winner, though. She’s the greatest of all time (unless it’s Steffi Graf). And to win more, she’s going to have to accept a few things:
She does not run fast anymore. She doesn’t scare top players anymore, as she found out against Victoria Azarenka at the U.S. Open, screaming as loud as possible during points to try to intimidate, and then faking an injury to throw her off. Neither worked. Azarenka rolled.
Serena still has the best serve in the world — and of all time — but young players are catching up there, too. And they’re used to returning great serves. She is still the strongest woman on tour. And she also has every experience and has seen everything and won in every possible circumstance. That’s valuable.
She’s ranked No. 9 and in a French Open where the No. 1 player and defending champ, Ash Barty, is sitting out. The best player in the world, Naomi Osaka, is also sitting out. But the slow clay of Roland Garros is Williams’ worst service, swallowing up some of her power. And the cold weather in Paris will slow her shots down even more. (A tennis ball doesn’t fly as fast through cold air).
And what’s worse, Serena used to coast through the early rounds, but now has to fight through them and her body starts breaking down in the later rounds. She needs to get into wickedly good shape. She’s not there now.
She and coach Patrick Mouratoglou have her working on a mental aspect. That’s good because in tennis, legs aren’t the first thing to go. Nerves are.
“I feel like that has been what I needed to deal with, understand that my level of greatness is sometimes crazy high, and a win is a win,’’ she told reporters after her win. “I have to let go of those expectations. That doesn’t mean I’m lowering my expectations. It just means I’m having realistic expectations of not winning every point, every game, every shot. It sounds crazy, but, you know, that’s me and that’s what makes me me.’’
Tennis has been so lucky to have Serena all these years. But Serena has to have patience with 39-year-old Serena if this is still going to work.