Serena Williams upset, but not crushed
PARIS -- The stunning moments piled up, one by one, until the staggering evidence could not be denied: Serena Williams, one of the heavy favorites to win the French Open, was uncharacteristically erratic, unfocused and weak on Tuesday. And now she's out at Roland Garros.
Frenchwoman Virginie Razzano pulled off one of the most stunning upsets in Grand Slam history by defeating Williams, the fifth seed, 4-6, 7-6 (5), 6-3 in an epic three-hour struggle on Court Philippe Chartrier. Razzano, ranked No. 111 in the world, only has four wins against top-five players in her career, and this toppling of Williams ranks as the biggest.
Williams came into the match with a 46-0 record in Grand Slam first rounds and was 17-0 on clay this year. Eight of 12 ESPN tennis experts had picked Williams to win the tournament.
"I just started making a lot of errors. Just the whole match, I didn't play at all the way I have been practicing," a subdued Williams said of her 47 unforced errors.
It was clear from the start of the late-afternoon match that this would not be vintage Williams, the player who won the 2002 French Open and 12 other Grand Slam singles titles. She never looked comfortable, showing frustration throughout, and even a few tears during the break between the second and third sets.
The tension and drama were everywhere: Razzano started cramping in her right leg in the second set and continued to experience symptoms through the third; Williams visibly struggled to keep the ball in play; and Razzano battled her nerves trying to win the match.
The final game, which lasted nearly 25 minutes, was the most gut-wrenching. It went to deuce 12 times on Razzano's serve, and Williams held off seven match points before the Frenchwoman finally triumphed. Even the winning point was messy, as Razzano needed chair umpire Eva Asderaki to come down and confirm that Williams' groundstroke was out on the left baseline.
Despite battling painful cramps in her right quadriceps, being called for hindrance points in the final set and, at the end, trying to control her nerves, Razzano said she never stopped believing in herself.
"So when you play against a champion like [Serena], you have to do your best. I believe I did my job today," Razzano said in French. "Even a bit more than my job. You can't underestimate your opponent."
Razzano looked drained and shocked when she realized she had won, then started jumping up and down. A somber Williams shook Razzano's hand and then made a hasty retreat.
There was an interesting subplot, as Asderaki was the chair umpire during Williams' infamous tirade at the 2011 U.S. Open. There was no incident this time between the two.
"I tried, I kept going for my shots, which worked for me in the past, but it didn't work out today," Williams said. "I just wasn't ... I just made too many errors today. That's not the way I have been playing. It's life."
Razzano, 28, is a sentimental favorite in France, as she lost her fiancé and coach, Stephane Vidal, to brain cancer just days before the start of last year's French Open. Vidal fought cancer for nine years before dying at age 32. Razzano played with a black ribbon pinned to her shirt and Vidal's favorite necklace resting on a courtside chair last year. She lost, 6-3, 6-1, to Jarmila Gajdosova in the first round and cried her way through a heartbreaking news conference.
This year, Razzano's news conference was an amusing mix of French and English, as she attempted to answer the English-speaking media in English, but ended up going into French to find the exact words she wanted. It was a collision of languages, but her message was crystal clear through her smile: This was the biggest win of her life, and she earned it.
"Life is not only the work you do," Razzano said in French. "Sometimes the worst can become the better. Even if you have problems in your private life or professional problems, you have professional losses. If you work hard, it ends up paying off.
"Sometimes you have bad times and sometimes you have good times."
Williams said she was aware of Razzano's loss.
"We all have stories," Williams said. "I mean, I almost died and [my sister] Venus is struggling herself. So, you know, it's life. You know, it just depends on how you deal with it. She obviously is dealing with it really well.
"Everybody, like Mardy Fish, he's even having [heart] trouble. Everybody has something that they're dealing with. You've just got to deal with it."
Williams offered no excuses for her play, saying she felt fine despite reaching for her lower back a few times. She wasn't hitting with her normal power during the third set, playing it safe to keep the ball in play and the match going.
"I definitely was nervous. I'm always nervous in every match, I think that's a little bit healthy," Williams said. "But, there's no excuse."
Williams will have to live with the knowledge that, despite playing poorly, the match was hers for the taking in the second set. She was up 5-1 in the tiebreaker but fell apart, losing six straight points -- mostly on her own errors -- and Razzano took the set. Williams then went down 5-0 in the third set, crumbling under Razzano's ever-deepening groundstrokes.
Williams looked frustrated in the first set, struggling with her serve and making unforced errors. Razzano went up 4-2, but Williams raised her game by getting more emotionally engaged.
But as the late-afternoon shadows crept across the court, Williams could never find her form.
Despite the mistakes and Razzano's play, Williams said she never felt that the match was lost.
"I never feel anything really slipping away, I just felt like I couldn't get a ball in play," said Williams, 30. "And I was hitting late, and how can you hit late on a clay court? It was just kind of odd."
Williams didn't seem particularly upset while speaking to the media after the match, a change from past years, when she took losses in an emotional way.
She said Venus' health struggles and her own have changed her views on what winning and losing mean.
In her own way, Razzano said she related as well, as she has her own experiences with loss. A year has brought change, to both Razzano and Williams.
"Yeah, it is disappointing -- but it's life," Williams said. "Things could be a lot worse. I haven't had the easiest past six months. Nothing I can't deal with."