The inescapable conclusion, after watching a young French woman jerk Serena Williams around the tennis court at Wimbledon here Saturday like she had her on a string, is that Father Time has arrived for a talk.
Maybe, in Williams’ case, it is Mother Time.
Williams is an amazing tennis player, the best female of her generation. Might continue to be. Her 17 major titles speak to that, of course. So do her five titles within these hallowed walls.
But sometimes, when it goes, it goes. With Williams, it remains difficult to be sure whether that is now. But ignoring the facts serves no purpose, not even hers.
She will be 33 on Sept. 26. She lost this year in the third round of the Australian Open and the first round of the French. She is strong and her game is built on power, but the size that gives her that power also makes it tougher and tougher to keep pace with lighter, scampering opponents.
That’s what Alize Cornet of France, a 24-year-old seeded 24th, was — lighter, faster and with a tactic that played effectively to that in this third-round match.
Serena won the first set, 6-1, and it appeared to be yet another Williams domination on its way. But Cornet kept making Williams dart and dash, time after time, to the net to chase down drop shots.
At one point, late in the second set, Williams got to one, won the point and shook her fist angrily. It appeared to be in Cornet’s direction, but all she would say afterward was that the drop shots “didn’t frustrate me.”
To admit that, of course, would be to open the door for others to use the same tactic.
Cornet said that an early rain delay messed her up and that she didn’t get going until the second set.
“She dropped her concentration a little then,” Cornet said of Williams, “and I used that. I started to play better, and the battle was on.”
The final score of 1-6, 6-3, 6-4 does not fully reflect the intensity of that battle.
Cornet actually led in the second set, 5-0. Would she bagel Serena Williams? At Wimbledon? Was that even conceivable?
It was not. Williams, perhaps thinking the same thing, scratched and clawed and ran down drop shots and got back to within one break. But with Cornet serving at 5-3 and 30-all, Williams was slow to get to her left and yanked a backhand wide for set point. Then Cornet pulled her wide to her forehand side with a first serve and Williams didn’t move quite fast enough to get in position to get it back.
In the third set, Cornet kept up the pace.
She used speed, deep ground strokes, mixed pace, and, always, at key and frustrating moments, drop shots.
Cornet served for the match at 5-2 and Williams broke her with a huge backhand winner. Cornet served for the match again, this time at 5-4. But there seemed to be no gas left in the Williams tank this time, no bounce in the step. She hit long, then got her timing thrown off by a net-cord and hit wide. At 30-love, she dumped an easy volley into the net.
And on match point, Cornet rubbed it in one last time. She had Williams tracking down yet another drop shot, the tactic that had been both effective and diabolical. Williams got there one more time, but hit it into the net.
It was an ending both symbolic and revealing.
After the match, a poised and personable Williams kept saying that she didn’t really know what happened in the match. One suspects, deep down, she knows all too well.
“Usually I know, I did this, this, and that,” he said. “I mean, I have some ideas, but this one will be a really a good one to kind of assess and figure out what I can do better next time.”
She said there have been a few times in the past when she has come off the court and really had no idea what happened. Obviously, with her record, not many.
A questioner brought up the point that this will be the first time in eight years that neither she, nor sister Venus, will be in the singles draw in the second week of Wimbledon. She answered something about defending points, which did not address the issue.
It is always dangerous to speculate on when an athlete’s decline has begun. Venus spoke to that Friday, after she had gone out in the third round as well in a long and tiring three-set match. Venus turned 34 on June 17.
“People are always retiring us,” she said.
Serena Williams won two majors in 2012 and two more in 2013, including the U.S. Open. Flushing Meadows would be a good place and time to get people to stop writing about careers and twilights.
She was quizzed specifically about her past success compared to now. So, you think you are better now than you were then, the questioner asked.
“I would hope so,” she said.
Alize Cornet and her drop shots might beg to differ.