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Wimbledon

Chicken or Egg? Serena doesn’t care, and she shouldn’t

Matt Zemek

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Susan Mullane - USA TODAY Sports

Before this Wimbledon began, TWAA contributor Andrew Burton and I discussed on Saqib Ali’s podcast — here is the Google Podcasts link, and here is the Apple Podcasts link — the state of the WTA Tour.

We know that the WTA is not a stable tour, and we know that the WTA can use the emergence of an elite rivalry at the big tournaments, a rivalry which appears again and again to create a magnetic effect among fans which ripples through the media bloodstream. On those points, Andrew and I agree.

On other points, we diverged in what was — and still is — a very interesting conversation about women’s tennis. Reasonable people can and will disagree about the meaning of “quality depth.” Andrew and I view this topic in different ways. Andrew made very good points in articulating his position. I merely see the landscape differently.

This Wimbledon provided instances which validated both sides of this discussion.

The quality depth argument was bolstered by the fact that Jo Konta and Sloane Stephens met in the third round and played a high-quality match. Stephens, a major champion, lost in Week 1 of a major and really didn’t do much of anything wrong. Konta simply played a magnificent match.

Alison Riske and Barbora Strycova put together some big-time performances in deep Wimbledon runs which were legitimately strong.

Karolina Muchova played a very impressive match to take out Karolina Pliskova.

On the other hand, the idea that WTA players don’t carry over results or uphold seedings was also validated:

Angelique Kerber simply didn’t play well against Lauren Davis in round two. None of the Roland Garros semifinalists returned to the Wimbledon semis, and three of those four semifinalists didn’t get past the fourth round. There have been 12 different semifinalists at the women’s majors this year. Only one of last year’s eight Wimbledon quarterfinalists returned to the round of eight this year.

If consistency is part of your definition or expectation of what “quality depth” means, you can certainly make the case that the WTA’s depth is not so much “quality depth” as “erratic depth.”

Therefore, when you realize how much the top half of the draw crumbled at this Wimbledon, it is worth thinking about the chicken-or-egg question at the heart of this column: Did Serena benefit from what happened in her draw, or are we giving those other players too much credit and Serena not enough of it?

Serena Williams could have played these six players at some point in the first six rounds of Wimbledon: Kerber, Ash Barty, Belinda Bencic, Sloane Stephens, Jo Konta, and Petra Kvitova.

She played none of them.

It would seem undeniable that Serena was helped along by this path through the bracket, playing Carla Suarez-Navarro instead of Kerber on Manic Monday; Alison Riske instead of Barty or Bencic in the quarterfinals; and Barbora Strycova instead of Stephens/Konta/Kvitova in the semifinals.

Yet, for all the ways in which that statement might be unassailable, these points also remain:

— Kerber has not had a good season since Indian Wells, partly due to injury.

— Barty had not yet made a deep run at Wimbledon, and was bound to play a match (after a 15-match winning streak) in which everything did not go well for her.

— Bencic hasn’t made a major semifinal and has not played well at the majors in 2019.

— Stephens has slumped this season.

— Konta is gifted but prone to patches of erratic play.

— Kvitova was not fully healthy at this tournament.

The point: Serena might have beaten all of these players anyway.

The other point: That one women’s quarterfinalist of the eight from 2018 who returned to the quarters in 2019 was none other than Serena herself.

As in 2018, Serena played three Roland Garros matches, came to Wimbledon in uncertain shape, pulled herself through a less-than-routine first week, got better in the second week, and made the final.

When you answer the bell as consistently and as dependably as Serena has — not just in the course of a two-decade career, but more specifically in these past two Wimbledons, in her late 30s, in the midst of various life challenges and health complications — who really cares about the answer to the chicken-and-egg question raised above?

I know Serena doesn’t care. I also know Serena shouldn’t care.

Easier draw or not, unstable WTA Tour or not, quality depth or not, Serena is there. Serena has regrouped from Paris, again. Serena has made a Wimbledon final after very little match play, again. Serena has quieted a lot of doubts about her form, longevity and durability, again.

The chicken-and-egg question raised earlier in this piece is an interesting one, and you can discuss it as much as you would like. I have discussed it at length. There is nothing wrong with diving into this conversation.

Serena Jameka Williams — necessarily — will focus elsewhere, chiefly on playing Simona Halep on Saturday for major singles title No. 24.

She can engage in the only kind of talking which ultimately matters: the talking she does with her racquet.

Matt Zemek is the co-editor of Tennis With An Accent with Saqib Ali. Matt is the lead writer for the site and helps Saqib with the TWAA podcast, produced by Radio Influence at radioinfluence.com. Matt has written professionally about men's and women's tennis since 2014 for multiple outlets: Comeback Media, FanRagSports, and independently at Patreon, where he maintains a tennis site. You can reach Matt by e-mail: mzemek@hotmail.com. You can find him on Twitter at @mzemek.

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