Serena Williams' second-round loss to Garbine Muguruza at the French Open was about more than dethroning the defending champion. The 6-2, 6-2 demolition of the 17-time Grand Slam winner confirmed what has been suggested about Williams this year: Fewer players fear her.
The blueprint for beating Williams is out and circulating among the players.
Unlike in the past when players sat back and waited for Williams to self-destruct, more players are taking it to her. They are force-feeding Williams the same relentless play she's been dishing out. They've figured out that instead of fending off Williams' blows, they need to take the fight to her.
As if saying "I'm not scared of you," players are coming out swinging and beating Williams back. Forget attacking the second serve. They are now jumping on the first one.
After the match, Williams spoke with reporters about her opponent: "I think Garbine played really well and she played really smart. I didn't adapt."
Williams better regroup if she wants to capture that 18th Grand Slam title, because the word is out. If you want to take out Williams—attack, attack, attack.
After her victory, Muguruza told Tennis.com about her plan: "I wanted to be so aggressive from the beginning. Don't give her angles, so she doesn't make me run."
It was similar to the way Ana Ivanovic dismantled Williams at the Australian Open. Ivanovic, like Muguruza, made a conscious effort to go on offense and make Williams play defense.
"I had some confidence coming into today's match. I really did certain things extremely well, you know, and I kept her under pressure I felt throughout the whole match," Ivanovic said in a post-match interview back in January.
Williams, a master at intimidation, used to count on getting inside her opponent's head before the first serve.
Her entire pre-match routine is designed to establish who's in charge. She walks onto the court dressed in a blazer, signaling that she means business. At the coin toss she swings wildly, warming up her serving arm. It's physically intimidating. Then she makes her opponent wait. She rises slowly from her chair and saunters toward the baseline. Meanwhile her opponent has been standing there with time to ponder.
In her first-round match at the French Open, Williams faced poor little Alize Lim. Lim, a friend, talked about trying to calm herself in preparation for a match against Williams.
She told reporters at her post-match press conference: "I was very excited and a bit scared. ... I tried to have positive thoughts, like 'okay, I have played boys and it can't be worse—she doesn't come from another planet.'"
In 2007, when an unseeded Williams made a remarkable run through the Australian Open, ESPN tennis analyst Luke Jensen described how important the intimidation factor was for her:
"There's no doubt how intimidating she is. Just when she walks around the grounds, you can feel her presence. When you have that much hardware in a trophy case, it's hard not to command that respect. ... She's relentless and her opponents can feel it."
New York Daily News writer Filip Bondy once wrote an entire column about Williams' game face. In the column, Bondy quotes tennis champion Stan Smith: "When Serena is focused, the way she was at the Olympics, her best friend could walk past her and she wouldn't say hi. An opponent looks at that, she thinks, 'There's no chance.'"
Sam Stosur, who defeated Williams to win the 2011 U.S. Open, told The Guardian:
Serena is intimidating even when she's on her best behavior. Her tennis normally does all the talking she needs. But she's larger than life and in early matches, when I wasn't as experienced, I did find it very intimidating against her. You almost feel like you've got no chance.
Stosur went on to say that as she got older and had more success, she felt less intimidated by Williams.
The more Williams loses, the more her mystique wears thinner—especially with younger players who walk onto the court without the battle scars that veterans such as Maria Sharapova and Li Na have sustained in their many defeats to Williams.
Muguruza, who grew up idolizing Williams, spoke with reporters on how difficult it was to set aside hero worship and focus on the player:
It's very difficult, because since I was a child when I turn on the TV, I see her play. Everything, when I'm practicing, okay, how Serena serves, how she plays a backhand. I saw like 100 videos of her. But it was really difficult to be able to, okay, be calm, and say, It's another player. But I think I did it, and that was the reason I could play like this.
Muguruza never retreated. She moved inside the baseline and challenged Williams' biggest weapon, the serve.
Williams can expect more matches like this. Younger players have video evidence that the blueprint for beating her works. These players have nothing to lose and everything to gain against the only active woman on the WTA Tour in the greatest-of-all-time conversation.
As Williams ages, she will inevitability experience what other all-time greats such as Martina Navratilova and Steffi Graf endured: the rise of the newcomers who find it increasingly easier to dismiss the legend and defeat the opponent.