Test begins for Serena Williams
STANFORD, Calif. -- The biggest names around the tennis stadium here Monday night belonged to Willie Mays and Barry Bonds, who posed for a photo with Sabine Lisicki. Barring a return appearance by those two, and perhaps Joe Montana, the face that fans (and media) most eagerly await to see Wednesday night is the one featured on many of the Bank of the West Classic tournament signs and banners.
Those advertisements show Serena Williams celebrating a winning shot with a clenched fist and a triumphant expression, along with the slogan, "The Road To Victory Begins With Courage."
Serena's pose was much different in her last competition, where her infamous viral illness left her so woozy in a Wimbledon doubles match with sister Venus that she could barely bounce a tennis ball, let alone strike it with the authority of one of the sport's most powerful serves. She weakly double-faulted four consecutive times before finally leaving the court.
"That was really challenging. I shouldn't have let her play," Venus said Tuesday. "It was hard for me in the moment because I know how I am, and I don't want anyone to tell me not to play. I wanted her to put the racket away but I tried not to be bossy. It was just a tough situation for both of us. She kept saying, 'I want to try, I want to try, I want to try.' She tricked me into letting her try.
"I'm just glad she walked off the court. Sometimes you need the courage to walk on and sometimes you need the courage to walk off."
Andrea Petkovic was waiting in the locker room that day for her own doubles match. She was supposed to play on a different court, but officials were waiting to see whether Serena would retire and thus open the Williamses' court for Petkovic's match.
"For me it looked like when you're really sick and your sugar level drops," Petlkovic said. "I've had that sometimes that I get so dizzy. But this was really extreme. I thought the officials shouldn't have let her out on the court at all.
"But it's tough because Serena is such a strong personality that when she says, 'I want to play,' I guess it's difficult to say no. I wouldn't go there and say, 'No, Serena!' Because she is just so strong."
That strength and drive are part of the reasons Serena has won 17 majors and been ranked No. 1 in the world for nearly 200 weeks in her career. But watching her struggle at Wimbledon prompts the inevitable question about whether age is beginning to sap some of that strength, as it inevitably will. Some day.
At age 31 last year, Serena won two Grand Slams, including the US Open. This year she has won three tournaments -- Rome, Miami, Brisbane -- but has not fared well in the majors. Failing to advance to the quarterfinals in any of the Slams, she was knocked out in a 64-minute second-round match against Garbine Muguruza at Roland Garros and knocked out in the third round at Wimbledon against Alize Cornet. And then came her bafflingly woozy doubles performance.
Williams turns 33 in two months, but Petkovic doesn't think age has been the issue for Serena.
"I played her in Rome and I played her in Brisbane and she was better than I had seen her before -- ever," Petkovic said. "A lot of tennis has to do with confidence, and I think sometimes losing a match unluckily, like in Australia against Ana Ivanovic -- who is such a great player -- then when your confidence is off, and at the next Slam you're tighter than normal because you don't want that happen again to lose that early.
"Serena has other expectations for herself than others, so you're tighter, a little more nervous, you have a tough draw -- playing Muguruza in the second round is not easy. Things like that happen. And then you have a second Slam that is kind of bad and then you go into the third Slam and you're even tighter, even more nervous."
And though even a great player like Serena may lose some confidence from early-round exits, it can boost the confidence of younger player against her.
"It gives you confidence when you see you can beat important players and you see you're not far from them," said the rising Muguruza, who upset No. 12-ranked Dominika Cibulkova in the first round here Tuesday. "You win these kinds of matches and you gain more confidence in yourself."
"There's the belief in other players: 'Oh, she lost before; I can maybe beat her,'" Petkovic said. "There are so many things that come together. I don't think it's something physically, I think it's something mentally. And I think it's the lack of confidence."
Serena should be confident Wednesday when she plays 22-year-old and 45th-ranked Karolina Pliskova of the Czech Republic. Angelique Kerber said she saw Serena practice Monday and that she looked in top form as usual. Petkovic said she expects her do very well.
"She will do absolutely fine," she said. "The thing with Serena is that as long as she has the hunger to compete, she will come back stronger. The only thing is when she gets tired of competing -- whether that is tomorrow or 10 years or five years or next year -- I'm sure she will have the right frame of mind to say, 'OK, enough.'
"But as long as she has the hunger, we are basically all screwed."