TENNIS - INTERNATIONAUX DE FRANCE 2014

Gracious in defeat, Serena smiles philosophically as she shakes hands with Garbine.

When I consider the shock second round defeats of both Williams sisters at Roland Garros on Wednesday, I can’t help thinking there’s more going on than meets the eye.

Serena has made valiant efforts to court the French. I can imagine she might have expected to succeed by virtue of her relentlessly sunny disposition and force of personality alone. However, the Gauls seemed to demand more and Serena proved up for the challenge, setting up a home in Paris and learning the language. But, despite applying herself so diligently to the task, it seems she still can’t win them over.

She fell spectacularly out of favour with them way back in 2003 and, it has to be said, through no fault of her own.

It’s hard to access watchable video of the controversial ‘hand’ event that occurred during her semi-final match with eventual champion Justine Henin-Hardenne back then. It’s also hard to believe that this incident is still dogging the younger Williams sister today.[1]

A less than friendly handshake between Serena and Justine.

Serena and Justine: a less than friendly handshake.

Serena, it seems to me, was in the right and her outrage completely justified. Not only did the Belgian cause her to serve a fault but she then denied she’d done so. Yet the crowd turned on the American, subjecting her to booing and jeering, so much so that she failed to win another game.

Yet Serena was prepared to put this behind her; and has tried hard, and with a generous spirit, to rationalise the continuing animosity of the French. I recall in previous years that the spectators’ unremitting antipathy reduced her to tears in a masterfully definitive disenchantment of a blithe spirit.

So it almost ruined my whole tournament to witness how shabbily the crowd treated this great athlete (and reigning champion at the French) in her first match against Alize Lim, cheering her double faults and errors but declining to applaud even her most impressive winning shots. Is it any surprise she looked downhearted despite her 6-2 6-1 victory? It must be soul-destroying to walk out on court to face this deep an enmity.

Why was the world number one relegated to the second court, Suzanne Lenglen, which plays more slowly than Chatrier and is less suited to her style?[2]

I couldn’t help but contrast this with the reaction to Maria Sharapova, who annihilated her first-round victim Ksenia Pervak 6-1 6-2. The crowd had no problem applauding Maria’s winners and aces so it wasn’t just a case of rooting for the underdog.

They were fairer to Venus but I know, being close to my own sister, that that probably only made her feel worse for Serena. She looked depressed, lacklustre and out of sorts as she lost to 19-year-old Anna Schmiedlova 2-6 6-3 6-4.

Venus looked out of sorts as she crashed out of this Grand Slam.

Venus looked out of sorts as she crashed out.

I watched Serena’s second round match against Garbine Muguruza with a growing sense of despondency. The commentator said at one point that the American hadn’t hit top gear yet. Truthfully, she hadn’t even shifted out of park. She hadn’t disengaged the handbrake. You know, I’m not even sure if the key was in the ignition.[3]

Mother Oracene looked as resigned as her daughters did lethargic. The only time the top seed brightened up was when she shook hands and congratulated her Spanish conquistadora at the end, relieved that it was all over. Who would have dreamt that she would lose 6-2 6-2 to an unknown 20-year-old?

Commentary from the ITV team has also been less than positive, critical of Venus for warming up in a puffa jacket, implying this was an attempt to intimidate her opponent. When Serena berated herself for losing points, this was deemed disrespectful to her adversary.

No one expressed the slightest regret that Serena should lose in such an ignominious and uncharacteristic fashion. Indeed, the commentators seemed to find it difficult to conceal their glee at both upsets.

Everything the Williams do is interpreted in a negative way, even the fact that they are still competing and hungry to win when they surely have enough euros by now. No one questions why Roger Federer is still playing. No wonder the girls’ hearts sometimes just aren’t in it.

It could be that there’s some adverse family circumstance like illness (they’ve had their fair share of that already, with Venus’s Sjögren’s syndrome and Serena’s pulmonary embolism) that is affecting both girls but I pray that this isn’t the case. Richard Williams was noticeably absent from these early round encounters.

I don’t want to take anything away from their young opponents’ French Open victories but these were more than just unpredictable defeats. Now that the red dust has settled on the damp clay of the Williams’ continental Grand Slam, we can only speculate as to the reasons behind their unheralded early departure. But I would venture that the ennui they succumbed to was mental rather than physical in nature.

Whatever, I wouldn’t blame either sister if they never graced Paris with their presence again. I can only hope we treat them with more respect and appreciation at Wimbledon.

Serena post-defeat: ‘It was one of those days. You can’t be on every day.’

___________________________________________________

[1] For an account of the drama, see busted racquet’s blog.

[2] There’d been great indignation on behalf of Raphael Nadal when he was scheduled on there but no protest or question at all when it came to Serena.

[3] Later, they remarked, rather understatedly, that she ‘hasn’t been able to get her rhythm’. Man, she was not even on the dance floor, more like comatose in the ladies toilets. Bewildered by the hostility she encountered, this was not the Serena we usually see.

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