Column: Serena Williams has to retire from Paribas Open because of a viral illness

Serena Williams acknowledges the crowd after retiring her match against Garbine Muguruza on Sunday.
(John G. Mabanglo / EPA-EFE / REX )

The star-studded Sunday field at the BNP Paribas Open tennis tournament at Indian Wells ended up star-studded minus one.

Serena Williams, playing on center court after Roger Federer’s day match and before Rafael Nadal’s led off the night session, had to drop out with what the WTA tour called a “viral illness.”

Williams tried, winning the first three games of her third-round match against Spain’s Garbine Muguruza and then losing the next seven. The official score puts Muguruza’s victory at 6-3, 1-0 (retired).

Williams warmed up in a big white coat that looked more like something appropriate for a winter night out in New York City than a tennis match in the Palm Springs desert in March. It was a bit cooler than the norm for March here, but not fur coat weather. That was the first hint of something amiss.


But she began the match cracking winners off both sides, and while her body language didn’t seem quite right, the results did. Then Muguruza broke back to 2-3, held serve to 3-3 and the zip was completely gone in Williams’ game. She called for medical help after the first set, played one more listless game and called it a day.

The WTA put out a statement that Williams suffered a “a viral illness.” A short time later, Williams issued her own statement that said, “Before the match, I did not feel great, and then it just got worse with every second; extreme dizziness and extreme fatigue. By the score, it might have looked like I started well, but I was not feeling well physically. I will focus on getting better and start preparing for Miami (the next tour stop).”

Muguruza said she didn’t notice much until, “I guess at the end of the first set, or when the first set was over … then she was calling the trainer.”

Sign up for our daily sports newsletter »


Williams’ illness withdrawal was unfortunate for the fans, because it had the best chance of Sunday’s marquee offerings to be a real battle. Muguruza is among the few players on the tour with a competitive history against the 23-time Grand Slam champion and legend. Going into Sunday’s match, Muguruza had a 2-3 record against Williams.

The first Muguruza victory was in the second round of the French Open in 2014, when the Spaniard took out Williams 6-2, 6-2. That was Williams’ worst defeat in a major tournament, to this day. The next was the 2016 French final, where Muguruza won 7-5, 6-4. The three matches Williams has won against Muguruza have all been at major tournaments, and they include the 2015 Wimbledon final, a 6-4, 6-4 win.

Besides her French Open title over Serena Williams, Muguruza also has a second major title, and it came at the expense of Venus Williams in the 2017 Wimbledon final. Muguruza is the only player to beat both Williams sisters in a final. In this case, both finals were in majors.

“I like playing against them,” Muguruza said. “I think they are the best, even though I believe I can win every time. When I play them, I am excited. I know it is going to be a good match. It’s difficult every time. I always have a battle.”


This time, not so much.

Muguruza is only the second Spanish woman to become No. 1 in the world, after Arantxa Sanchez Vicario. Muguruza made it to the top in September 2017, some 22 years after Sanchez Vicario.

Muguruza said she now spends much of her time in Los Angeles, where her coach lives.

“I love it here,” she said, “because the weather is good. There is a lot of focus on sports, people trying to get healthy. That helps me get that feeling.”


Muguruza hopes for more good feelings in her next match, a fourth-rounder against Kiki Bertens of the Netherlands. Bertens is seeded seventh, is ranked 13 spots above Muguruza and has won four of their five matches.

Coincidentally, it was Bertens who may have helped Muguruza to that 2016 French title over Serena Williams. In the semifinal, Bertens stretched Williams to a hard 7-6, 6-4 decision before losing.