You might have heard me say this before: Circumstances shape matches. Serena Williams knows this as well as anyone.
If you were to pick a set of circumstances in which Sofia Kenin had a really good chance to beat Serena at a major tournament, Saturday’s match in Paris fit the bill. If you were to pick a set of circumstances in which Serena losing to an unseeded player in straight sets would be viewed as unsurprising, this contest at Roland Garros would certainly qualify.
Yet, circumstances merely influence situations. They don’t necessarily guarantee outcomes. The player in the advantageous position has to make good use of her advantages. The player in the difficult position still has a chance to win and can surpass expectations.
Sofia Kenin made great use of her advantages in this match. She did get nervous near the end, but on most of the occasions when Serena — due to sloppy footwork rooted in a lack of match play and overall conditioning — lost her forehand on break point, Kenin then seized the opportunity to hold serve. She did this on numerous occasions, the final one being when she served out the match at 6-5 in the second set. Kenin was opportunistic on a day which gave her a huge opportunity. She earned this.
She won more than Serena lost. We ought to be able to agree on that.
Sure, Serena made a lot of errors, but the key nuance to emphasize is that she made errors in a larger context of rust and sluggishness.
It is basically 2018 all over again — not in all its exact details, but certainly in a larger sense — for Serena.
She came to Paris without ideal fitness or a substantial amount of match play a year ago. Uncertainties abounded when she entered Roland Garros in 2018, and they remained when she left, having played exactly three matches. She didn’t play a fourth match because she withdrew from the tournament before playing Maria Sharapova.
2018 was a lot like 2019 at Roland Garros.
It was not realistic to expect a deep run from Serena in Paris. Sure, she’s Serena Freakin’ Williams, which therefore means all things are possible with her. However, possible and likely are far from the same thing. Such was the reality in 2018, and that fundamental outlook didn’t change in 2019.
Serena can quickly pivot to grass, much as she did in 2018.
The bottom line: If Roland Garros in 2019 was a lot like last year’s trip to Paris, Serena can only hope that the rest of 2019 will be a lot like 2018 — not exactly the same, but close.
Serena made the finals of Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. She didn’t win those finals, but the recovery from a layoff, bodily trauma, and the complexities of life as an aging athlete (while also handling motherhood) was impressive nonetheless. Wimbledon was the realistic comeback point for her 2018 season. It is much the same this year.
2019 imitated 2018 in an unpleasant but hardly shattering way for Serena Williams in Paris. If 2019 remains in step with 2018, this will become a very good and professionally satisfying year for a woman whose pursuit of even more tennis history should not be written off anytime soon.