All good things come to an end, but they don't necessarily end in a good way. Top-ranked Serena Williams found that out in Madrid on Friday, as she was clobbered in the semifinals of the Madrid combined event by No. 4 seed Petra Kvitova 6-2, 6-3.
Although it was no consolation to Williams, it was only slightly less surprising -- as well as improbably symmetrical -- that in the other semifinal, No. 3 seed and defending champion Maria Sharapova also was eliminated. Sharapova was knocked out with a comparable paucity of drama by her Russian compatriot, all-but-forgotten No. 29 seed Svetlana Kuznetsova.
Kvitova's win ended a number of Williams' streaks: 27 straight wins, dating to 2014; 19 consecutive wins in Madrid, 50 successive match wins in WTA Premier Mandatory events (the highest-level WTA tournaments). It took Williams over three years to accumulate some portions of that record (the 50-match one began in Miami in March 2012), but it took only an hour, 13 minutes, and the demonic lefty hook serves and forehand blasts of Kvitova, to bring all those streaks to a crashing halt.
At its best, the serve of that strapping, 6-foot-tall former Wimbledon champion from the Czech Republic bears contrast with the withering blasts delivered by Williams herself. On this day, Kvitova put 68 percent of her first attempts into play, which enabled her to win 75 percent of those points. How often does a player beat Williams in the "first-serve points won" category by a full 15 percent, as did Kvitova?
To be sure, Williams' hand was heavy in her own demise: Kvitova smacked 25 winners and, despite being famous for spraying the ball all over the court even on a good day, she made only 14 unforced errors. Williams tagged only 17 winners and made 29 unforced errors.
But it wasn't as if you couldn't see all this coming -- not for either Williams or Sharapova, maybe not even for Roger Federer (who lost earlier in the week to Aussie upstart Nick Kyrgios). After all, we're a month into the clay season and Rafael Nadal has won only one minor tournament, and the hottest WTA player on clay so far this year has been Angelique Kerber -- a woman who was mired in a horrible slump until early April. Things seem a little off kilter -- but nowhere more so than in the WTA.
Sharapova has been the WTA's most reliable clay-court star for a few years now, but her results in 2015 on all surfaces have been lackluster. She has dropped to No. 3 behind Simona Halep, and the Russian was a first-round loser in her last two events -- the most recent (before Madrid) on the red clay at Stuttgart, where she also was defending champion.
Of course, Sharapova is a player who can lose to anyone, even at the best of times. But this one had to feel especially bitter, given that Kuznetsova had been worn down by back-to-back, third-set tiebreaker wins in the two previous rounds, while Sharapova was coming off her first win in three matches against that excellent litmus test for consistency, Caroline Wozniacki.
As the 28-year-old Russian said after she stopped Wozniacki: "I think this was an important match for me, and also an important match to see where my level was, and how I can withstand that physicality of a match against her."
Kuznetsova, a versatile player with great wheels and a good command of the full stroking vocabulary, did a great job keeping Sharapova off balance. She pulled and stretched her this way and that, and she even had the temerity to attack her serve. The only thing that makes an aggressive player more uncomfortable than great defense is being put on the defensive, and Kuznetsova did a good job in that regard.
Unlike Sharapova, Williams hadn't lost a match in 2015 coming into Madrid, but the end of the early hard-court segment also signaled her shift into what is generally a danger zone -- or the closest thing there is to one for Williams.
Clay has never been Williams' strong suit, and while her age (33) doesn't necessarily have to be more of a liability on red dirt (it is, after all, a more forgiving surface), it can work against her if she allows herself to get embroiled in long wars of attrition. Which is exactly what happened to her in the third round at Madrid, through no fault of her own, nor out of necessity.
Williams had to play unseeded former No. 1 Victoria Azarenka, who is on the comeback trail. Bad luck. But Williams also was comfortably ahead by a set and a break in the match before she took her eyes off the prize and lost her focus. By the end, she was obliged to survive three match points to win in three sets.
Williams' dramatic fight-back at the very end, when Azarenka served for the match and built a 40-love lead, might have been more resonant had Azarenka not double-faulted the third of those match points -- and the two next points as well, to surrender her serve and set up Williams to serve out the match.
The reward for the harrowing three-set escape for Williams was a match against a young lady punching well above her weight class, diminutive Carla Suarez Navarro. Although a local favorite, the 5-foot-4 Canary Islander has a game tailor-made for Williams, who beat her with ease. But Williams was under no delusions about the state of her game despite the 6-1, 6-3 win. She told the media:
"I'm still trying to do the best I can out there. I'm going back and hitting some balls with my eyes closed wondering how they went in. Just here on a hope and a prayer, to be honest."
It may have sounded like false modesty from a lady who has been cultivating a humble persona and has had nothing but high and fulsome praise for her opponents. (Before their match, Williams said of Kvitova, "I love Petra. She's a great girl and a great player on top of that. Always good to see those two combined.") But the ensuing semi demonstrated that Williams wasn't sandbagging.
"[Kvitova] went for broke on every serve, every return," Williams said afterward. "I hit some second serves, 170, 175 [kph], and she just hit them for winners. I was very slow off the mark. After my serve I wasn't moving as well as I should have. You know, I wasn't in it. I wasn't Serena today. I think that was the main thing."
It seems that there's a vacuum at the top in the WTA at the moment, yet nobody -- young or old -- is stepping forward to fill it. Is that about to change, or will Serena become Serena and Maria become Maria again over the next few weeks? We'll know by the end of the French Open.