No matter how often it happens, it's always a shock to see Serena Williams look vulnerable on a tennis court.
On Wednesday, Serena looked as powerless as can be, crashing out in shocking fashion to 20-year-old Garbine Muguruza of Spain 6-2, 6-2 in the second round of the French Open. It was the most lopsided defeat at a major in her illustrious career. Suddenly, Serena winning multiple more majors doesn't feel like a sure thing.
Usually, Serena's losses on the big stages can be chalked up to bad days or injuries. They're often isolated incidents that don't have much of a bearing on her future or legacy, despite the fact that they take away from her Grand Slam tally. But this time felt different.
For the second straight major, Serena was simply taken out of her losing match by a strategic, hard-hitting opponent. Earlier this year in the Australian Open fourth round, Serb Ana Ivanovic came out firing, hitting forehands deep and to the middle of the court, taking the angles away from Serena and leaving the 17-time major champion flat-footed and lifeless.
Muguruza, who has shown flashes that she is going to be a player to reckon with in her young career, copied that playbook. She took away Serena's ability to dictate, and therefore was able to take the match.
Of course, it’s one thing to have a game plan, and quite another to execute it against a 17-time Grand Slam champion. Muguruza was virtually flawless, especially with her returns and backhands, which seemed to be laser-guided to a spot about a foot in front of the baseline. Even when Williams was serving, she was on her heels. It’s rare to beat Serena, but it may be even rarer to break her five times in the process.
"It was one of those days," Serena said after the match. And while it's natural for even the best to have off days, the worry is that this year "those days" have come around more frequently.
Besides Wednesday's match and her loss to Ivanovic in Australia, Serena also has head-scratching losses to Jana Cepelova in Charleston, South Carolina and Alize Cornet in Dubai. For all four defeats, her opponents had a similar strategy: Catch Serena on a sluggish day then relentlessly hit hard, flat, deep and to the middle of the court.
Chris Chase of USA Today's For The Win described why he thought this was the most disastrous performance in a major of Serena's career.
Serena, the best server in the history of women’s tennis, was broken in five of eight games. She hit eight winners against 29 unforced errors. Her footwork made it look like she was playing in quicksand rather than clay. In the end, Muguruza, who entered Roland Garros ranked No. 35, looked like the top seed finishing off a routine win, holding at love to score the biggest win of her life. The four games won were the fewest in any of Serena’s previous Grand Slam losses.
Coming in the immediate aftermath of her sister Venus' loss to 19-year-old Anna Schmiedlova, it was hard not to see Serena's loss to Muguruza through a changing-of-the-guards lens. The Williams sisters were supposed to face off in the third round, but instead it will be a battle of two up-and-comers trying to back up the biggest wins of their careers.
Still, it would be foolish to count Serena out. We all had a similar conversation about Serena two years ago, when she crashed out of the French Open in the first round to Virginie Razzano. Following that devastating defeat, Serena went on to win Wimbledon, the Olympic gold and the U.S. Open.
Plus, Serena is still the No. 1 player in the world and has won three titles this year. She's hardly a washed-up has-been. She's going to attempt to use this loss as fuel to get better. "I'm going to go home and work five times as hard to make sure I never lose again," Serena told reporters. "I know for a fact I can play so much better than what I did today."
While a mad Serena is a terrifying thought for the rest of the WTA, the truth is that everyone's reign of dominance eventually comes to an end. The first five months of 2014 could be a sign that Serena is beginning an inevitable decline, or it could be just another chance for her to prove her greatness to us all over again.
One thing is for certain, though. Serena is 32 years old and has a lot of tennis miles on her tires. These off days are going to pop up more often than they have in the past. And now, the rest of the WTA knows how to take advantage of them.