It can’t be easy being Serena Williams. As if the never-ending jokes about her weight, the constant questions about her motivation and the vicious calling out of her arrogance weren’t enough, she also has to face the weight of expectations every time she steps on the court. A weight of expectations perhaps more great and enduring than any other player in history has had to face. No match is considered beyond her reach until the last point has been played, and this has remained the unwavering perception of her game irrespective of the injuries, bad form, or even plain old boredom she has experienced at various points in her career. As Roger Federer put it in that immortal quote back in 2008, a champion player, by winning so often, creates a ‘monster’ of expectations from which it is impossible to run away. Serena Williams has, with her frequent Houdini acts and unyielding resolve, created perhaps the most ferocious monster ever seen in tennis.
That monster was an ever-present factor in Serena’s opening round match against unseeded Frenchwoman Virginie Razzano yesterday. For the first hour and a half, the match didn’t look like it was going to end up being anything too far out of the ordinary. Serena was playing at a level far below her best, but it still seemed enough to earn a straight sets victory. When Razzano somehow held off Serena’s viper-like strikes towards the end of the second set, you felt that her resistance couldn’t possibly last through the tiebreaker. When Serena jumped out to a 5-1 lead in the breaker, the suspicions were confirmed: Razzano had played her heart out, but that wasn’t going to be enough to tame the greatest player of this generation. But then, in the blink of an eye, the match careened from being a low-quality snooze-fest to a raucous carnival-like battle. Serena suddenly couldn’t find the court with her groundstrokes any more, and she never even got to set point. Razzano pocketed 6 consecutive points, and the players, who had started to look like paid entertainers swaying to the tune of a vociferous crowd baying for blood, went to a third set.
On the changeover, Serena fought back tears at the thought of all those missed opportunities, but the monster told us that she would pull out the match anyway. This was Serena Williams, and she was playing a Grand Slam match against an opponent well below her stature. How could it be any other way? Razzano showed us how. Sensing her opponent’s growing frustration, Razzano stuck to patterns that had been working for her: serve to Serena’s forehand, move her from side to side, keep the ball in play long enough. And Serena, unbelievably, succumbed to all of those tactics like clockwork: errors started flowing freely off her racquet, and in the space of 25 incomprehensible minutes, she was staring at a 0-5 3rd-set deficit. She simply couldn’t get enough returns in play off her forehand, and her movement on the clay seemed, there’s no other word for it, sub-par.
Despite those glaring deficiencies in her game towards the end of the match, though, we still expected her to stop the bleeding at some point. Serena has made a career out of blasting winners from the most unlikely of court positions. So what if she wasn’t moving well enough? She could still hit her way out of her trouble; she would hit her way out of trouble. This was a first round match at a Grand Slam, a stage at which Serena had NEVER lost before, the monster told us. But the errors never stopped, and Razzano didn’t buckle the way we thought she would. The crowd got into the match even more, and after a point Serena was actually reduced to laughing at herself: her errors were that astounding. And yet, despite all of her problems, and despite ALL the spectators seated inside Philippe Chatrier Court voicing their support for Razzano as one, Serena still had the chance to bring the match back to serve.
The game at 5-3 in the 3rd set, with Razzano serving for the match, could possibly be nominated for an Oscar for the spectacular, gut-wrenching, head-shaking drama it showcased. The game stretched for well over 20 minutes, and involved Razzano squandering 7 match points and Serena wasting 5 break points. There were belief-defying winners, laughable errors, an ace, a double fault, Razzano bending over with cramps, badly shanked returns, and even a point penalty awarded to Serena for apparent hindrance caused by Razzano’s grunting, all amid a cauldron of chants and boos and yells from the crowd. You didn’t know whether you wanted the match to end immediately, or to go on forever. And best of all, you had absolutely no idea who would end up the winner of the match (unless, of course, Serena had won the game – everyone knew that there would be no stopping Serena if she got back on serve). Serena clawed and shrieked on every one of the match points, refusing to miss, while Razzano brought out her most aggressive tennis on all the break points she faced in the game. Finally, it took just a little extra bit of steadiness from Razzano, and one last error from Serena, to bring the curtain down on the match. Razzano looked like the happiest woman on earth as Serena’s backhand sailed just long on the 8th match point, and she had every reason to. The monster had been slayed, and the Paris crowd roared their approval.
Of all the players who were scheduled to stand as possible obstacles for Serena in the tournament, Razzano must perhaps have seemed the least threatening. For much of her career, Razzano has been – there’s no way to sugar-coat this – a rank journeywoman. This is the biggest win of her career by far, and coming as it does just a year after the tragic passing away of her coach and fiance, it must be be even more special. While Razzano had the backing of an intensely partisan crowd to help her get over the line against Serena, there’s no denying her incredible effort in the match. For 3 hours on Court Philippe Chatrier, Razzano left it all out there, straining every last nerve and fiber to pull out the win. Her reward? A place in the second round of the French Open – no one is going to mistake her for a title contender even after this stupendous feat. It’s not easy being Serena Williams, but maybe it’s even harder to be Virginie Razzano.