Today in London, Sabine Lisicki took out her fourth consecutive French Open champion in Wimbledon play. In 2009, it was Svetlana Kuznetsova. In 2011, it was Li Na. Last year, it was Maria Sharapova. Today, it was defending champion and five-time Wimbledon winner Serena Williams. Lisicki didn't play at Wimbledon in 2010; had she done so, she would have no doubt drawn Francesca Schiavone and done away with her, too. (The Wimbledon website, by the way, declares that the German took Schiavone out in 2010, but even the ambitious Lisicki couldn't have pulled off a stunt like that from her living room in Florida.)
This is one of professional tennis's stranger records, and for anyone who made a joke about it in the past week, well--who's laughing now? And why did anyone think that this week would be less hazardous than last week was?
Lisicki won the first set 6-2, breaking Williams twice. The defending champion served better in the second set, while the German player's serve faltered. Lisicki is an all-or-nothing player when it comes to serving. Commentators talk about her fast and powerful serve, and indeed she has one, but I've also seen her use angles, placement, and the element of surprise to win games with not-so-powerful serves, including second serves.
Williams won the second set 6-1, then went up 3-0 in the final set. A collective breath was exhaled. The defending champion then led 4-2, after which Lisicki won four straight games and advanced to the quarterfinals. Just like that.
What happened? First, Lisicki--on her good days, and she tends to have them at Wimbledon--can be lethal. Yes, she's powerful and a big server, but when her head is glued on straight, she reads the court well and can add quite a bit of finesse. Of course, that would be an accurate description of Serena Williams on just about any day. But a couple of things happened in today's round of 16 contest: Lisicki was at her very best for much of the match, and Williams--especially toward the end--lost her edge.
ESPN commentator Pam Shriver talked about watching the faces and body language of the two players in the last half of the final set. Lisicki, she said, was smiling and jumping up and down, while Williams looked somewhat crestfallen.
Every time something like this happens to Serena, commentators and writers (and perhaps some fans) act as though it's never happened before. But it has. Williams, despite her super powers, is nevertheless a human who has bad days, and she tends to have them when the stakes are very high, which means that she gets nervous.
The Big Analysis is on: The Rolling Stone interview upset Williams. Maria Sharapova's remarks upset her, Williams' parents weren't there, Venus wasn't there. Well, yes, some less than positive things (some of Williams' own making) happened right before and during the tournament. And maybe these things didn't help. But this is Serena Williams, who has endured everything from the murder of her sister to the vilest misogyny and racism imaginable to her own possibly career (and life)-ending medical emergency. And gone on to win.
After the match, Williams said that she just wasn't physically capable of holding serve in the third set. "You have to be ready and willing to hold your serve," she told the press. "I wasn't willing or able, probably didn't even want to hold my serve today."
Credit should go to Lisicki for not folding in front of Williams as so many have in the past. In today's match, it was the German who maintained her mental toughness, and the defending champion who just couldn't finish the job. Upsets happen, and at this Wimbledon, they happen a lot.