Serena Williams wasn’t just the favorite to win the Wimbledon title—she was the foregone conclusion.
Before her shocking three-set loss in the fourth round against Sabine Lisicki, Serena was on a 34-match winning streak. She had already captured six titles in 2013, including the French Open. She wasn’t just beating her closest competitors—she was systematically destroying them.
Since losing in the first round of the French Open last year, she has become a more fit, more focused and more determined version of the Serena Williams we have seen throughout the last decade. Thanks to this renewed commitment, she was on a mind-boggling 77-3 run.
To put it mildly, she looked unstoppable.
However, at the 2013 edition of the Wimbledon Championships, nothing can be taken for granted.
The string of shocks and upsets have been recounted time and time again, but they’re alarming enough to look at again.
It all started on the first day of the tournament when No. 135 Steve Darcis took out Rafael Nadal in straight sets, causing everyone to tear up their draws and throw them out the window.
Little did we know at the time, but that was just the beginning. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga withdrew from his second-round match against Ernests Gulbis with a knee injury. John Isner’s knee didn’t last three games in his match against Adrian Mannarino. Dustin Brown stole the spotlight from Lleyton Hewitt.
And before we could even process any of those shocks, reigning Wimbledon champion Roger Federer lost to Sergiy Stakhovsky in the second round, snapping his momentous streak of 36 straight Grand Slam quarterfinals.
In the women’s draw, things were equally as tumultuous, as Maria Sharapova lost in the second round to qualifier Michelle Larcher de Brito, while a right-knee injury forced Victoria Azarenka to withdraw.
But with Serena Williams still in the draw, everyone else was just playing for second place.
Nobody bothered to tell that to Sabine Lisicki.
For the record, Lisicki is not an unknown. The big-hitting German has been a threat at Wimbledon for years. She has made it to the quarterfinals three times and the semifinals once. She is ranked No. 24 in the world. Perhaps most impressively, she has taken out three reigning French Open champions on the Wimbledon lawns in the past four years.
So there were warning signs, but traditional warning signs aren’t supposed to apply to Serena Williams.
After all, Serena loves the grass courts too, as her five Wimbledon titles prove. It’s a surface that rewards big-time hitting, big-time serving and big-time courage, the things that Serena does best.
Yet when the pressure was on in the third set, it was Serena’s serve that faltered. It was the 16-time Grand Slam champion who botched overheads and netted backhands and was constantly off balance and out of position.
Sabine was the one hitting cross-court winners, firing aces and taking control of the points. Sabine gave Serena a taste of her own medicine.
Maybe Serena was tired, mentally or physically. Maybe she had an injury we don’t know about. Or maybe Sabine was just simply better at tennis on this particular day.
There are justifications, but at the end of the day there is only one winner and one loser. Only one player is left in the tournament to contend for the Venus Rosewater Dish.
In Serena’s illustrious career, we’ve seen her look human before. We’ve seen her beaten by herself or her opponent. We’ve seen her come up short, fail to produce and look lost. It’s a testament to just how great she is that every single time she looks that way, it is an earth-shattering shock.
The champions in this sport have spoiled us throughout the years. We’re used to seeing them come up with their best tennis at the most important moments over and over again. They get through the tough patches. They survive scares. They out-gut their bad days and their opponents' great ones.
They pull through so often that it’s easy to remember that they do it because they’re great, not because it’s a given.
As this Wimbledon has reminded us time and time again, even greatness has off days.