By Sharada Iyer
Special to Tennis With An Accent
After her second-round exit from the Australian Open on Thursday, defending champion Sofia Kenin conducted a tearful press conference. While not making any excuses for her loss to Estonian Kaia Kanepi, the fourth-seeded American did admit the pressure did her in.
“My head wasn’t there… I had chances. I just couldn’t take it. I obviously know why because the nerves big-time got to me,” the 22-year-old said. “I’m not there 100% physically, mentally, my game. Everything just feels real off obviously. It’s not good. It’s weird… I know I couldn’t really handle the pressure. I’m not obviously used to this, so right now I just got to figure out how to play at that level that I played at. Because like today and those matches, it just hasn’t been there.”
On Friday, the day after Kenin’s exit, Serena Williams played in the third round against Russia’s Anastasia Potapova. The opponent and the setting were both familiar – Williams had faced Potapova in the first round of the 2020 edition of the same major and had won an untroubled affair, 6-0, 6-3. This time around, easy wasn’t the word that came to mind to describe her victory.
Both Williams and Potapova struggled with their rhythm throughout the match. If one were to observe solely in terms of the score line, it would seem the latter found it much harder to exert control over the proceedings. Yet, given what the tennis world has come to expect of Williams, the 23-time Grand Slam champion’s game wasn’t up to her usual exacting standards.
She struggled with her timing, her shotmaking was off, and she found herself trailing in the score far more times than she led. Nonetheless, when she did find a way to put herself in the lead, she made sure she went all the way and collected the win as the reward for her scrappiness.
As the draw narrows further, there’s a possibility that Williams might have to face – and come through – similarly patchy periods of play. As she pointed out in her post-match press conference on the day, it’s about surviving such matches.
“I came out a little bit not [out] of the starting blocks like I would have wanted to and like I have been since I’ve been playing here, but you know it’s about surviving and playing better every round,” the seven-time Australian Open champion pragmatically observed.
No one knows better about “surviving and playing better” than Serena, especially in these last few years. She has successfully pursued the task of breaking one Grand Slam record – Steffi Graf’s 22 slams in the Open Era – and is now trying to reach Margaret Court’s mark of 24 majors.
It has been almost five years since Williams won her 23rd major at the 2017 Australian Open. Since then, she has gone 0-4 in major finals. Despite these setbacks, pressure has been a primary greeting for her. Accumulated defeats at majors have magnified the existing pressure Williams faces.
Yet, in her inimitable way, Williams has owned pressure instead of letting it dictate terms to her.
Granted, Williams hasn’t always defeated that pressure in recent years – she hasn’t gone all the way in four years – but even in the years when she didn’t win a major, she still made multiple major finals. She was, for instance, the only player in women’s tennis who made two major finals in 2019. She also made two major finals in 2018 – only Simona Halep did the same that year.
Considering that the momentousness of what she’s trying to accomplish has affected her play at times, it’s still impressive Serena reached those four major finals in the face of a deep and formidable WTA field. In her keenness to commit to each new game in each new match across each tournament she plays, Serena Williams has shown she is willing to go toe-to-toe with this intangible opponent, for as long as it takes to subdue it.
“Sometimes these matches are really just about getting through them and forgetting them and moving forward. In the past I wasn’t able to do that because I was so hard on myself, and it would affect me in the future. I’m still learning,” Williams said after her win over Potapova.
These introspective words of the World No. 11 raise an interesting point: No matter where a player’s career is, that player can’t stop learning. Results, good and bad, give lessons the player might not want, but might profoundly need.
Serena Williams, in willing to put in the hard yards to keep learning from her results, is setting a precedent whose implications go not only beyond her achievements but which also stand to outlive her career. Serena’s example offers a chance to others – both in tennis and outside this domain – to imbibe from a source of wisdom, in the present moment, and grow for the future.