Well, first it was Wawrinka, then Li Na, and now the women’s defending champion herself, Serena Williams, have all fallen in the first couple of rounds of the French Open in exits that have sent shock waves through the stands of Roland Garros. The 2014 tournament is certainly proving to be the most unpredictable tennis event of this year as the tops seeds and safest bets seem to be dropping like flies. This is the first time in Williams’ illustrious career that the world number one has failed to come through the second round of a Grand Slam when holding the top ranking, making it one of the worst losses she has ever suffered. The fact that she went out in straight sets just adds salt to the wound. The final score was 6-2, 6-2, to her 20 year old Spanish opponent, Garbine Muguruza. While Williams was clearly not on form – hitting only eight winners and making a massive 29 unforced errors – the young Spaniard should be applauded for taking full advantage and playing an aggressive and astute game against the defending champion.
In response to her performance on the day Williams claimed that it was just “one of those days” and reminded people it is impossible to be “on” all the time. She was also rather gracious in her defeat, stating that Muguruza had played a “smart” game. However, the famous optimism and determination still shone through her disappointment as she said it was “really great” motivation to go home and work “five times harder” to make sure she never loses again. Seeing Williams make such an early exit in the second round of the French Open was always going to be a shock, but her reaction to the set back is a reminder of why she has been such a successful player in the past.
Indeed, she has seen her fair share of unwelcome set backs as this is not the first time Williams has been knocked out of a Grand Slam in the preliminary stages. Since turning 30 she has often struggled almost as much as she has succeeded on court, and after returning in 2010 has been more likely to go out before the fourth round than she is to reach the final. The last time she went out in the second round of a major tournament was her first appearance at a Grand Slam in the Australian Open in 1998 where she faced hr sister Venus Williams. She also went out in the first round of the French Open in 2012 to Virginie Razzano, as well as giving fairly lax performances against Ana Ivanovic and Sloane Stephens in the fourth round of the Australian Open this year and the year before. That said, this particular match proved to be one of the hardest of Williams’ career, with her normally impenetrable serve being broken in five of eight games. Her movement was sluggish and she displayed uncharacteristic imbalance during many points, allowing her younger opponent to dispatch her with an ease normally associated with seasoned, top ranked players.
The implications of Williams’ early failure is that Maria Sharapova now looks to have a clear path to the trophy now that her two main rivals (Li Na being the other one), are now out of the running. The Russian’s has failed to beat the American since 2004, and there was little to suggest that if they had met in the quarter finals she would have been able to reverse this trend. With this major psychological obstacle removed from her draw, Sharapova is now the tentative favorite of the women’s tournament. However, given how the competition has panned out so far it is perhaps unwise to lay great odds on just one player, so there is still hope that a newcomer might swoop in and continue to upset the status quo. The other major implication is that now both Williams’ sister are no longer in the competition (Venus was defeated only about an hour before her younger sister), the predicted meeting between the siblings in the third round will actually see Muguruza against the woman who conquered Venus, Anna Schmiedlova.
Perhaps now the shadow of Williams does not loom large over the competition it will take away any sense of inevitability from the women’s game. Certainly it looks like the draw has opened up and while Sharapova is still a threat the shock exit of Williams and Li Na have illustrated that this year’s French Open is an opportunity for the younger players to make their mark and potentially steal the prize.
Commentary by Rhona Scullion