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Why Serena Williams is losing her aura of invincibility

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Expert
9th September, 2019
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The women’s game in tennis is just so gosh darn predictably unpredictable. Save one thing.

Predictably, someone born in the 1990s has won a slam – as eight have done it in recent years.

Predictably, there has been a different grand slam winner – as nobody has won more than one major a year in the last three years.

However, not many would have predicted that Serena Williams would not have passed Margaret Court’s slam tally of 24 by now.

In all of her last four grand slam finals, Serena has lost each time. Not only that, she has lost in straight sets.

First, it was Angelique Kerber (Wimbledon 2018), then Naomi Osaka (US Open 2019), then Simona Halep (Wimbledon 2019), and now Bianca Andreescu.

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The 19-year-old overcome the most partisan crowd you will ever come across, arguably the greatest female player of all time and any debut grand slam final nerves. What nerves?

The Canadian was ranked outside the top 150 at the start of 2019, missed much of the clay-court season and all of the grass-court season with a torn rotator cuff.

She won a grand slam at only her fourth attempt, only Monica Seles has captured a major sooner (her first slam), and she is 8-0 against top ten players this year.

Despite an enthralling comeback in set two, Serena still lost 6-3 7-5.

The aforementioned quartet all showed huge heart, ability, and mental strength to beat the 23-time grand slam champion in their respective finals.

But they all showed a gargantuan amount of belief and surgical-like execution.

Serena has not. Between 1999-2015, Serena won 21 slams and lost in the finals just four times.

Two losses were to Venus Williams in 2001 and 2008, one to Sam Stosur in 2011 and the other was to Maria Sharapova in 2004.

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For having the temerity to do such a thing, Serena would avenge this by beating Sharapova for the next 15 years.

But that aura of invincibility has, seemingly, evaporated in grand slam finals.

In the last three finals she lost, her opponents have got off to fast starts but have also benefitted from an error-strewn opening salvo from Serena.

In Saturday’s final, Serena made 33 unforced errors, hit eight double faults (three of which were on break points), and hit a meagre 44 per cent of first serves in.

She also won just 30 per cent of second-serve points.

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It should not be downplayed that she had a child two years ago and that she is about to be 38, but this is not the Serena we know.

She admitted as much.

“I believe I could have played better. I believe I could have done more today. I believe I could have just been more Serena today,” she said.

“I honestly don’t think Serena showed up. I have to kind of figure out how to get her to show up in Grand Slams final. It’s inexcusable for me to play at that level.”

So, is the pressure of trying to get to number 24 weighing heavy on her shoulders?

Serena batted this away too.

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“I’m not necessarily chasing a record. I’m just trying to win Grand Slams. It’s definitely frustrating, you know. But for the most part, I just am still here. I’m still doing what I can do,” she said.

However, earlier in the tournament she said something rather different.

“What we don’t understand is when I get 24 – because it’s inevitable – you guys are going to ask me about 25 and to pass the record. And that’s what you don’t get,” said Serena.

Either way, it is clear that in the mental strength department, Serena is struggling.

In her most recent slams when she has made it to the final, Serena has, on the most part, breezed into the last round, before becoming unstuck at the final hurdle. It could be argued that she has gone untested until the final and when a worthy adversary has met her there, she has crumbled. We are not used to this.

When Serena was 5-1 down to Andreescu in set two, she went into overdrive, fighting back to 5-5. We are used to that.

Serena Williams

Serena Williams (Photo by Fred Lee/Getty Images)

In this short spell, she showed that nobody can live with her in the game, even at 37, when she is firing on all cylinders.

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But, when she was level, the nerves returned, the unforced errors were back and the winners stopped flowing.

Andreescu roared back into life and deservedly kept the crown away from Serena for another year.

Now, she will have to wait for January’s Australian Open to add to her slam tally – which may seem a long, long way away.

The combination of age, quality opponents who feel they can beat her, the weight of expectations and a lack of matches, are making it very hard for Serena right now.

The question is, how bad does she want it? She may have to work harder than ever before to get over the line. With a young child and 38 years approaching, is she willing to do that?

Serena may think it is inevitable that she passes Court’s slam record, but it is far from a foregone conclusion.