Williams sisters lose aura of invincibility

It was baking hot in the city, warm enough to start believing in mirages. Was that really defending champion Serena Williams dissolving in straight sets? Get a grip, man! Next you’ll be saying Venus lost as well.

Truly this was a day when reputations melted away faster than ice cream. Those who trekked to SW19 to worship the sisters of perpetual invincibility staggered home confused, dehydrated and suffering from rare double vision.

You could hardly blame them. Only twice this century has the ladies’ singles title at Wimbledon not been won by a member of tennis’s most relentless dynasty. Only twice before has the deadly duo bowed out on the same day of a grand-slam event. They could rip up all the grass and abolish the sale of strawberries and the Wimbledon landscape would still feel less alien than it does at present.

So is it a full stop or a semi colon in the Williams’s monologue? It will be a question seized upon by those who sense the end of a lopsided era. There will also be a measure of official relief. What if the sisters had swanned into town, having barely played all season, and carved up the draw as per normal? It would have left the leading ladies of the women’s tour without a collective fig leaf of self-respect, their inadequacies laid bare by their part-time tormentors.

Someone bravely chose to run this pour encourager les autres theory past Serena afterwards. “I’m super-happy that I lost. Go women’s tennis!” came the acidic reply. Asked whether her lack of match practice made defeat more bearable, her response was equally terse. “I’m more devastated than ever. I’m just a much better actress now.” If Venus sounded less irritated, it was probably because her opponent, Tsvetana Pironkova, has beaten her in their last three meetings.

Which, of course, is the crux of it. Maybe this was a genuine glimpse of the future. A growing number of opponents no longer seem as intimidated by the sight of a bellowing Williams as they once did. Marion Bartoli, Serena’s conqueror, seemed energised by the challenge. On Saturday, she banished her father from the coaching box during her three-hour, 13-minute marathon against Italy’s Flavia Pennetta. Here she was, 48 hours later, doing her parents proud and dismantling the “Mad Marion” headlines with her feisty, accurate hitting from the back of the court. It was less a case of Serena losing it than her opponent proving too good.

This, naturally, is not a concept that sits well in the Williams psyche. As with Tiger Woods, world domination has largely been based on a pre-match assumption of supremacy. The individual on the other side of the net, admits Serena, is almost an after-thought.

“Often I have to look up at the scoreboard to see who I’m playing. That’s how focused I am on me out there.” Whatever your profession, such breathtaking arrogance will invariably trip you up in the end.

Serena, in fairness, had not played any competitive tennis for 11 months when she rocked up at Eastbourne a fortnight ago. She was seeded seventh at Wimbledon, based on reputation rather than recent achievement. Two operations on a badly gashed foot and a life-threatening blood clot would test anyone’s resolve, let alone that of a top professional athlete. She travelled more in hope than expectation and, consequently, talk of a permanent decline is premature.

This result, even so, will maroon her at about 180 in the world rankings, down with the racket-wielding driftwood. She looked sluggish in the first set, rousing herself only to save five set points. It was still not enough to deter a forceful Bartoli, determined to send a member of someone else’s family packing this time. Only later on, as Williams scrabbled desperately to retain a painted-fingernail hold on the match by saving four match points, did an alternative outcome look remotely possible.

For all Williams’ competitive steel, it was to prove another illusion. Eastenders actress Jessie Wallace spoke the other day about disliking tennis, but enjoying the sound of it in the background. As this match proceeded towards a climax, the screeching would have done justice to any Albert Square stand-off, until a fierce service winner from Bartoli concluded a hotly contested slice of soap opera.

Venus, by her standards, departed with barely a whimper. Beyoncé may have charmed this year’s Glastonbury festival, but Wimbledon’s highest-profile female act has been summarily elbowed from the stage. –

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