PARIS -- When a Grand Slam loses both its Williamses in a single day before the first Saturday of the French Open even dawns, well, you know you’ve just lived through one freaky Friday.
You know because you’ve seen Serena Williams at high noon in the high-tension portion of the second set, ready to smash an overhead so hard the ball might disintegrate, only to smash it into the net.
You’ve seen mother and coach Oracene Price in the hallway outside the interview room and heard her say of Serena’s 6-4, 6-4 loss to Katarina Srebotnik, “I’m trying to figure it out. I’m really trying to figure this one out.”
You know because after about nine more hours, in swelling darkness that felt like farce and made you wonder if some tournament honcho had dozed off, you’ve seen Venus Williams slugging it out with Italy’s 30th-ranked Flavia Pennetta, Pennetta repeatedly hitting lines, even though it’s possible the lines- people can’t really see.
And you’ve seen Williams, after losing to Pennetta 7-5, 6-3, wave to a sparse crowd at 9:48 p.m. and saying she felt sad about Serena, “Yeah, just wasn’t a good day for our family today, but we always learn and get more determined after our loss.”
And then, you know because you’ve seen a French Open robbed of some flair, bound for a first-time Roland Garros winner and left to the Russians and Serbians still here: Maria Sharapova, Ana Ivanovic, Jelena Jankovic and Svetlana Kuznetsova.
In fact, it’s only the second Williams-Williams one-day double-loss in history, and the first since the French Open on June 1, 2004. On that quarterfinal day, when Venus Williams lost to Anastasia Myskina and Serena Williams to Jennifer Capriati, it curtailed a phase of Williams-Williams dominance that had grabbed the sport by the scruff.
This time, it might not have much significance other than to say it all looked bizarre.
The sisters will play Wimbledon and play on, and probably never need to figure out how Serena lost to Srebotnik.
Serena Williams had reached the fourth round in 24 of 26 Slams this decade; Srebotnik had reached it once in 34. Williams had touted her clay-court preparation as her best since her title year of 2002. Three-time-champion Justine Henin had retired. Opportunity radiated.
Yet Williams looked edgy on a pivotal backhand volley, on that overhead plus another, on some hopeless howlers of drop shots.
“She should just look at the ball, for one thing,” her mother said gently. “That overhead, she never saw it.” Missed volleys that rendered Srebotnik clever for urging Williams to the net? “Never saw ‘em,” Price said.
“I felt like I had to press to kind of stay in it, I guess,” Serena Williams said, a blueprint for horror on clay, odd for a No. 5 player in the world. The exhilarated Srebotnik at 27, ranked No. 24, had found the biggest win of her life and credited tactical lessons learned from a three-set loss to Williams in April.
Williams, told she seemed puzzled, said, “I’m not puzzled at all. I just don’t want to be here,” meaning the news conference. Asked why she went one for eight on break points while Srebotnik went three for four, Williams offered, “I don’t know. Thank you.” Reminded of Srebotnik’s play, she said, “She was making shots that I don’t think she made before or she would be in the top two.”
It’s no wonder Price said, “I’m not going to even mention it, no. I’m not saying anything, just staying away. You never know what’s in their heads.”
But on freaky Friday, Price had another turn in the stands, this time with her arms folded in evening chill when Venus Williams and Pennetta took the stadium court at the zany hour of 8:20 p.m., with most of the crowd gone to order wine in cafes. Still, Williams never complained, even as No. 3 Jankovic’s match was suspended minutes earlier because of darkness.
Through the two sets, Williams had lost serve six times, once on two closing double faults, but also played credibly. She just couldn’t much visit her stated new interest, the net, engaging in long baseline rallies as Pennetta hit ground strokes so deep even Martina Navratilova herself would’ve had trouble charging. “I just didn’t get in as much as I wanted to, and obviously if I got in more maybe it would have helped then,” Williams said. “We’ll never know.”
We do know there are reminders not to overplay the Williamses’ setbacks. Serena won the 2007 Australian Open from a ranking of No. 81, Venus the 2005 and 2007 Wimbledon titles from seedings Nos. 14 and 23. Both clearly love being doubted.
As Price said of Serena, “She’s really hurting about this one so she may come back swinging. Usually when she’s hurting, nothing can stop her. So maybe this is a good thing.”
And as Venus said of herself, “Because usually I’m extremely upset about the result” at the French, “then I work even harder. . . . So I’ll be working very hard at home and getting ready for Wimbledon.”