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Steve Flink: Serena Bows Out

5/27/2008 3:25:00 PM

by Steve Flink

After Justine Henin--- who had won Roland Garros the past three years--- announced to the world that she was retiring from tennis, I believed that Serena Williams was going to step up and take the world's premier clay court championship this year. Serena, after a less than stellar display in a quarterfinal loss to Jelena Jankovic at the Australian Open, had settled down and played some top of the line tennis in 2008.

Serena won her next three tournaments after her Melbourne setback, including an important triumph in Miami and a morale boosting clay court triumph in Charleston. She did lose a hard fought quarterfinal against Dinara Safina in Berlin, and had to default her quarterfinal in Rome with a back problem. But she seemed poised to move confidently into Roland Garros, where she was victorious six years ago. And yet, after a cluster of missed opportunities, on a day when her best stuff simply was not there, Serena was ushered out of Paris by none other than Katarina Srebotnik, the No. 27 seed who hails from Slovenia. The 27-year-old Srebotnik, who had never beaten Williams in three previous meetings including a collision at Charleston back in April, was too solid, tactically versatile and resourceful against a Serena in utter disarray. Srebotnik prevailed 6-4, 6-4.

Srebotnik has never been ranked higher than No. 20 in the world throughout her 14 year pro career. She finished 2005 at No. 28, concluded 2006 at No. 23, ended 2007 at No. 27. Only once before had Srebotnik beaten a player ranked among the top five in the world, defeating Amelie Mauresmo in Zurich three years ago. So this victory came out of nowhere. Perhaps Serena was overconfident. Maybe the disruptive weather over the course of the week caught up with her. It is possible that Serena "wasn't herself", as her mother said after the match.

Whatever the reasons, Williams was a long way from the top of her game. Serena's problems were exacerbated by an experienced and cagey opponent who may well have played the match of her life. Srebotnik had every opportunity to lose her nerve, but somehow she kept her composure and kept Williams constantly at bay. Serena made good on only one of eight break point chances, which sealed her fate in the end. Most surprising was that Williams was so vulnerable in big situations, at moments when she so often brings out her finest material.

With Srebotnik serving for the opening set at 5-4, Serena made her adversary work hard in a four deuce game. Serena had a break point in that crucial game, only to make a flagrant forehand unforced error, pulling the ball wide. Serena then had a chance for another break point but she bungled an overhead into the net from close range, letting the ball drop too low. A persistent Srebotnik, changing pace adroitly off the ground, and coming in at the right times, closed out that set, but was under pressure all through the second set.

Serving at 1-2, Srebotnik fended off two break points as Serena essentially self destructed. At 2-3, Srebotnik double faulted to fall behind 15-40 but escaped again as Williams errant play off the ground continued. Srebotnik was not out of the woods yet. At 3-4, she was break point down again but Serena sent a sidespin forehand drop shot wide with a good opening. Srebotnik collected the last three games to complete a highly improbable triumph. All through the contest, Williams missed too many routine backhand returns off second serves, and during the rallies her forehand let her down repeatedly. Srebotnik played a strategically sound match, changing the trajectory of her shots intelligently, refusing to get into a slugfest with the No. 5 seed. But Williams simply did not execute when the chips were down.

Williams had been a quarterfinalist or better in her last five Roland Garros appearances, so her third round defeat will sting. Serena knew that she could have won this tournament for the second time. She played the big points with a surprising lack of conviction. She lost to a woman who applied herself assiduously from start to finish. But Williams knows that she essentially beat herself on this occasion with questionable shot selection, poor footwork, and abysmal mistakes at inopportune times. It will be a day she will want to put behind her in a hurry.

Serena has had a rough time lately at the majors. Since she secured an eighth Grand Slam championship at the 2007 Australian Open, Williams has not made it past the quarters at the "Big Four" tournaments. In fairness, she lost three consecutive times in the last eight a year ago to Henin at Roland Garros, Wimbledon, and the U.S. Open. But now she has to buckle down again for the larger occasions. She had a disappointing day against Jankovic in Australia, and her loss against Srebotnik was the worst she had played at a Grand Slam event for a long while.

The view here is that she will find a way to come through at Wimbledon. She last won that title in 2003, and is long overdue to win on the grass at the All England Club. All in all, she has still had a good year, but great players define themselves by recording victories at the majors, and the time has come for Serena Williams to reaffirm her status as a champion of the highest order. I expect she will do just that on the British grass courts.

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