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Steve Flink: Serena unable to close out Lisicki

7/1/2013 5:00:00 PM

WIMBLEDON—Out went the two-time former champion Rafael Nadal on the opening afternoon of this bizarre 2013 edition of the world’s most prestigious tennis tournament, a victim of the Belgian Steve Darcis. Two days later, two-time Australian Open winner Victoria Azarenka defaulted her second round match with a knee injury, and then No. 3 seed and 2004 champion Maria Sharapova was beaten in the second round, ousted by none other than Michelle Larcher De Brito of Portugal. Later on that evening, seven-time Wimbledon victor Roger Federer was ushered out of the tournament by an unwavering Sergiy Stakhovsky in a four set, second round contest. In modern times, there has been no sequence of three days at the start of the tournament even remotely like the turn of events this year.

Across the next three days, the climate changed at the All England Club and the favorites largely prevailed. Order seemed to have been restored. And yet, just when it seemed as if the big names were on safer ground, the overwhelming women’s favorite was knocked out of Wimbledon today in the round of 16 despite being in a commanding position to win her match. Top seeded Serena Williams—in search of a 17th Grand Slam singles title—was upended by a spirited and undaunted Sabine Lisicki 6-2, 1-6, 6-4 in a startling encounter on the Centre Court. Although Lisicki always loomed as a legitimate threat to the top seeded player, it seemed highly unlikely that the 23-year-old German could do more than take a set off her renowned adversary.

Remember that Serena approached this meeting with a prodigious record not only at Wimbledon over the years but also through the entire 2013 campaign. Serena had captured 34 consecutive matches and 24 sets in a row coming into her Lisicki assignment. The 34 match streak was the longest of her entire professional career, and it included five tournament victories in a row. Altogether in 2013, she had taken six championships and her match record was 46-2. It was her most consistent season ever en route to the big W. Moreover, Serena had not conceded a set in her three previous contests on the lawns of the All England Club this time around.

And yet, Lisicki had some impressive grass court credentials of her own. The German has never fared particularly well at any of the other Grand Slam championships, but at Wimbledon she had celebrated more than her share of success. In 2009, she advanced to the quarterfinals, defeating Caroline Wozniacki before losing to top seeded Dinara Safina. In 2011, she stopped Marion Bartoli to reach the semifinals as a wildcard. She then lost to Sharapova. Last year, Lisicki upset the top seeded Sharapova to make it to the quarterfinals, losing a hard fought match to Angelique Kerber. Clearly, Lisicki knows what she is doing on this surface, and Williams knew she would be tested for the first time in the tournament.

Lisicki has one of the best first serves in the women’s game, and had served more aces (202) across 2013 than any player with the exception of Williams (292). She had the game to bother Serena, but it was imperative for the German to stay with Serena in the early stages and not permit the American to build an early lead. Williams would have had an entirely different mindset had she moved out in front and seized control of the first set. Lisicki did not allow that to happen.

Both women fought exceedingly hard to take control. Lisicki saved a break point in the opening game with a clean winner off the forehand, and held on after two deuces. The tone had been set. Lisicki was not giving much away and she was utterly determined. Serena held at love for 1-1 and then Lisicki was under duress again as the American began lacing second serve returns with immense power. The German stood up to that avalanche of power with remarkable resolve and purpose. She saved two more break points before holding on for 2-1. Now it was Serena’s turn to work inordinately hard on serve. She was stretched to deuce six times before holding with an ace for 2-2.

Lisicki endured five deuces on her serve in the fifth game, and she fended off one break point. She eventually held on for 3-2 with a gutsy second serve ace down the T. Serena had challenged her opponent severely in every service game, but had not been rewarded for her persistence. In the sixth game, it was Williams who buckled after reaching 30-0 with a pair of aces. At 30-40, Serena missed a relatively easy backhand down the line. Lisicki had moved to 4-2, and she swiftly took a 40-0 lead in the seventh game. Williams rallied to deuce, but Lisicki held on for 5-2. All of that tenacity and temerity from Lisicki seemed to rattle Serena, who was broken at love in the eighth game after starting with a tame double fault into the net. Set to Lisicki, 6-2.

But Williams put that disappointment behind her. After Lisicki held in the opening game of the second set, Serena secured 14 points in a row. Williams moved on to a two break, 4-1 lead. She took the set 6-2. The 31-year-old American seemed to have found her range off the ground and on her returns. Lisicki appeared to be questioning herself. Victory for the American seemed increasingly certain. Serena held at 15 for 1-0 in the third set, putting all five first serves in play. Lisicki led 40-0 in the second game of the final set before Williams collected the next point. Serena took the next two points with lucky winners off the net-cord. After two deuces, Williams broke with some first rate defense. In the third game, Serena moved to 40-15 with a second serve ace before double faulting. But she connected with a 113 MPH first serve wide to Lisicki’s backhand to elicit an error, and that took Williams to 3-0 in the final set.

Serena had captured nine of ten games to put herself in that enviable position. She was apparently poised for a triumph that might have propelled her through the rest of the tournament. Lisicki held on for 1-3 at 15 with a second serve ace and a service winner. But Williams surged to a 3-1, 40-15 lead. Lisicki produced a forehand net-cord winner, but Williams was in control of the next rally. She had a nice opening for a forehand drop shot winner, but sent that shot wide. Lisicki broke back for 2-3, rejoining the battle, reviving her spirits, reawakening the Centre Court crowd.

And yet, a pensive Williams struck back boldly, breaking for a 4-2 lead, closing out that game with a forehand winner driven impeccably down the line into a vacant corner. For the second time in this riveting third and final set, Williams was up a break, only needing to hold two more times to get across the finish line. Not only did she fail in that mission, but Serena lost four consecutive games from near the brink of victory. Lisicki largely seized the initiative down the stretch, and Williams seemed frozen, stricken by nerves, uncertain what to do, a champion who was allowing her opponent to dictate the flow of the match.

Down 0-30 in the seventh game, Serena served an ace down the T, but then she was caught off guard by Lisicki’s scorching backhand down the line, netting a forehand half volley. At 15-40, Williams aced Lisicki out wide, but on the following point Serena found herself beaten badly by a forehand down the line passing shot from the sprightly German. Serena dove in vain for a backhand volley but had no play. Lisicki was back on serve again at 3-4, but Williams went to 0-40 on the German’s serve in the critical eighth game, three times standing a point away from serving for the match. Lisicki had averted considerable danger but it seemed impossible she could escape from this predicament.

Yet this was the juncture of the battle when the German displayed her finest character. She coaxed an error off the backhand from Serena for 15-40, used a terrific first serve to set up a backhand winner down the line, and then drilled a forehand winner into the clear off a safe return down the middle from the American. Lisicki went to game point but Williams released a forehand volley winner. Not to be denied, Lisicki aced Williams out wide in the deuce court and sent a first serve deep to the backhand that Williams drove over the baseline on the return.

It was 4-4. Williams desperately needed to reassert herself and halt Lisicki’s momentum. Serena took a 30-15 lead in the ninth game, but Lisicki’s running backhand passing shot drew an errant, netted backhand volley from the American. At 30-30, Lisicki pulled Williams off the court with a sharply angled crosscourt forehand, and Serena drove her forehand long down the line. Williams wiped away one break point but Lisicki garnered another when Williams slipped as she moved forward to reach a drop shot from the German. Serena barely scraped the ball back off the forehand but it sat up invitingly for Lisicki, who passed the American easily into the open court. Williams then came forward but missed an overhead long, and that gave Lisicki the chance to serve for the match.

Lisicki commenced the tenth game with gusto. A first serve to the backhand provoked an errant return, and Williams conceded the next point with a backhand down the line unforced error. The German had the cushion of a 30-0 lead but Serena’s defense was superb on the next point. Then Williams moved in for an overhead winner. It was 30-30. Lisicki swung her slice serve wide to the forehand and Serena could not handle it. Match point for Lisicki, who put a first serve in at 112 MPH. Serena’s return was terrific, and a harried Lisicki missed. Lisicki double faulted to fall behind break point, but erased it emphatically with an ace at 113 MPH down the T. At deuce, Lisicki went back to the sliced serve wide in the deuce court to coax Serena into another return error, moving to match point for the second time. She sealed the victory with style and conviction, driving a backhand down the line to set up a forehand winner to the open court.

Lisicki’s 6-2, 1-6, 6-4 triumph was hard fought and well deserved. It was the shining moment of her career, her biggest win ever, and a morale boosting moment if ever there was one. To twice be down a break in the final set of a Centre Court clash with Serena Williams and still win was no mean feat. Lisicki moved on to the quarterfinals of a women’s tournament that is now impossible to predict. Winning her match in that fashion against an all-time great player on the sport’s most prominent stage is something that will irrevocably be etched in the heart and mind of Lisicki.

As for Serena Williams, this was a stunning defeat in many ways. The way she has been playing all year, it was astonishing to witness a second loss for the American in three Grand Slam tournaments over the  course of the 2013 season. Her quest in life these days is coming through as often as possible at the majors. Her place in history has at last become paramount to this American individualist. She said in her press conference, “I didn’t play the big points good enough. I didn’t do what I do best. I think I had a little hesitation, and that explains it…. I definitely felt like I could have went for it a little more on some of my shots. I think Sabine played really well as well. I mean, she always plays really well at Wimbledon, so I knew it was going to be a tough match.”

That was a sound assessment. Williams lauded Lisicki for having one of the biggest serves in the women’s game and that comment was on target, but the fact remained that Williams did not serve up to her normal standards at all. She won only 58% of her first serve points and 50% on her second serve, and was broken five times. Lisicki was the more aggressive player from the backcourt, and the German had 35 winners, ten more than Williams. In many ways, Williams played not to lose rather than performing with characteristic vigor and imposing herself with uninhibited aggression. In the end, that cost her the match when it was there for the taking.

In the final analysis, Williams failed to close out the account despite her many chances in the final set. Given her outstanding record this year, that was surprising. Serena had, after all, won Wimbledon three of the last four times she had played it. She had won 70 of 78 matches at the tournament that means more than any other. But despite this setback, she remains the unassailable best player in the world of women’s tennis, and this loss should not keep her downcast for long. Williams will inevitably come back strong at the U.S. Open, and she will be the favorite to win the championship of her country for the fifth time in September. Losing Serena Williams in the round of 16 at Wimbledon this year was almost unimaginable, but her vulnerability was as striking on this particular day as the unrelenting spirit of her adversary.
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Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He has been a columnist for tennischannel.com since 2007. You can purchase Steve's latest book "The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time" here.