Last year was one of the best years of Serena Williams' career. This year is shaping up to be one of the worst. My, how quickly things can change.
The five-time Wimbledon champion suffered another shocking defeat in a Grand Slam on Saturday when she fell 1-6, 6-3, 6-4 to No. 25 Alize Cornet in the third round.
The 17-time major champion has now failed to make it to the quarterfinals in four of her last five majors—the notable exception being her U.S. Open victory in 2013.
It's time to face the music: Serena is 32 years old, and she's been playing majors for the last 17 years. Age is catching up to her.
Saturday's match was similar to her other big losses this year. She became more and more passive as the match went on, and she just couldn't muster her best tennis when she needed it. It's a routine that's becoming uncomfortably familiar.
Still, this loss was surprising. I mean, it was just Thursday when we were all marveling at her form after her 6-1, 6-1 49-minute destruction of Chanelle Scheepers in the second round.
But Saturday was a different story. Cornet, the charismatic and dramatic Frenchwoman who also beat Serena earlier this year in the semifinals of Dubai, was superb for the final two sets of the match. However, as she freely admitted, she received help.
Serena was flat-footed, sluggish and error-prone throughout the latter two sets, with her usually dominant serve particularly becoming a liability. But her attitude was what really seemed to weigh her down—she seemed overcome by the moment, frustrated beyond belief and increasingly helpless as the match neared the end.
She simply didn't seem to have the belief in herself that she could pull out the win.
After the match, Serena lamented to reporters that she always gets the best version of her opponents.
While it might feel like that these days for Serena, it certainly hasn't always been the case. In the past, players came out nervous and reverent when they played against her, scared of her power, accuracy and mere presence. But, as we've seen recently with another 32-year-old with 17 Slams, Roger Federer, once the cloak of invincibility begins to disintegrate it's a completely different story.
These days, players know that if they come out with confidence, swing freely and hit the ball deep and into the middle of the court, they have a chance to rattle Serena. (If they can creatively sprinkle in drop shots the way Cornet did on Saturday, even better.)
They know that because Serena has looked human more often than ever this year.
It all began at the Australian Open when she lost in the fourth round to former No. 1 Ana Ivanovic. That match was unexpected, but it seemed as if she wasn't quite healthy. Then, after withdrawing from Doha with a back injury, Serena lost in February to Cornet in Dubai.
She won Miami in March in impressive fashion, but stumbled again in her first match on clay at the Family Circle Cup in Charleston, falling to No. 78 Jana Cepelova. Of course, her surprisingly straightforward loss at Roland Garros really caused people to take notice.
As Jon Wertheim for Sports Illustrated points out, the world No. 1 is running out of time to salvage her season:
After losing to Garbine Muguruza at the French Open, she remarked that she was never more motivated to win every single match. One wonders how she’ll be inspired after today's disappointment. At age 32, she was supposed to cement her status as an all-timer this year. Instead, the U.S. Open represents a chance to salvage her most disappointing season.
Right now, Serena is chasing history. It's very possible that the pressure of that quest, combined with her knowledge that the clock on her career is winding down, is making her tight.
It's also possible that her body is just not able to respond the way it used to, that her coaching relationship with Patrick Mouratoglou has run its course or that she's going through a little slump and she'll be back and better than ever before we know it. We just don't know quite yet.
Until she retires—which hopefully won't be anytime soon—there is no counting Serena Williams out. It would be silly not to think that she has more tennis greatness left inside of her. After all, she's won three titles this season and still sits comfortably on top of the rankings.
But there's no doubting that the days of greatness aren't a given like they used to be. Three early losses at Slams in a row isn't a coincidence or a fluke; it's a trend.
It's unfortunate, but even the legends can't outrun the aging process.