Serena Williams Facing a New Reality After Falling Short at Another Grand Slam

Greg CouchNational ColumnistJune 4, 2016

PARIS, FRANCE - JUNE 04:  Serena Williams of the United states of America reacts during her women's singles final match against Garbin Muguruza of Spain on day fourteen of the 2016 French Open at Roland Garros on June 4, 2016 in Paris, France.  (Photo by Aurelien Meunier/Getty Images)
Aurelien Meunier/Getty Images

This is the hard truth: Serena Williams is not the dominant force in women's tennis anymore. She's the best player, but she isn't dominant.

You saw it Saturday in the French Open final—the last point. That's when you saw Williams' hopelessness and a little panic. She had a lob go over her head and turned to start running back to get it. Serena of five years ago could have run down that ball—would have run down that ball—and kept it in play.

Serena stopped running Saturday and stared at the line, hoping it would go out.

It stayed in. And Williams gave the nervous shrug of someone who isn't used to being out of control on a tennis court. Garbine Muguruza beat Williams 7-5, 6-4 at Roland Garros to win the 2016 French Open.

This was a day for hard truths for Williams. It is her new reality. She lost in the U.S. Open semifinal to a journeywoman, Roberta Vinci, with no particular weapon other than an ability to keep running all over the place and keep the ball in play. She lost the Australian Open final to Angelique Kerber, a career choker, because she could not move her feet fast anymore.

But on Saturday, it was something new, something that's hard to believe would ever happen. On Saturday, she was overpowered. Muguruza, a 6'0" 22-year-old, challenged Serena punch for punch, power for power. You would think it was about the dumbest strategy anyone could try against Williams.

But Williams in her new reality can be overpowered.

To be clear, you have to be a tennis fan to have heard of Muguruza. But just in case: She is already the second-best player in the world, regardless of the rankings. She reached the Wimbledon final last year, where she lost to Williams, and she will win more majors.

PARIS, FRANCE - JUNE 04:  (L-R)  Serena Williams and Garbine Muguruza hug eachother after Spanish player Garbine Muguruza won Roland Garros during Day Fourteen, Women single's Final of the 2016 French Tennis Open at Roland Garros on June 4, 2016 in Paris,
Rindoff Petroff/Hekimian/Getty Images

But women's tennis is loaded with people general sports fans have never heard of. To reach the finals, Williams beat players named Rybarikova, Pereira, Mladenovic, Svitolina, Putintseva and Bertens. 

How many have you heard of? Test: What are their first names?

And you can imagine what the TV audience would have been like in the U.S. if the final had been Kiki Bertens vs. Muguruza? Women's tennis will have a serious problem if Williams starts to fade.

To be clear—another hard truth—Williams is starting to fade. But the key word is "starting."

She'll turn 35 in September and has lost a step. But there was something appealing about the way she played for the two weeks in France. She was trying to tie Steffi Graf with her 22nd major title, and when she does that, she'll be able to make a good case for being the best player of all time in women's tennis. 

Williams will get there. She is not done winning majors. But the other part of her reality the past two weeks was the way she was willing to grind through that blur of a list of opponents above. What happens to great players as they start getting older is they still play like champions most of the time, but then, out of the blue, comes a clunker.

Williams had a few clunkers the past two weeks, but she kept fighting and finding a way. In one match, she started pushing little lobs and then coming to the net behind them. She might not be the speediest anymore, but she can find something else inside, something creative.

PARIS, FRANCE - JUNE 04:  Runner up Serena Williams of the United States looks on during the Ladies Singles final match against Garbine Muguruza of Spain on day fourteen of the 2016 French Open at Roland Garros on June 4, 2016 in Paris, France.  (Photo by
Dennis Grombkowski/Getty Images

When you are a million times better than anyone else, it isn't that hard to win. But with Williams beginning to fade, the work is harder. 

The question is whether she'll want to keep putting herself through that after she catches Graf. Will she find it rewarding and interesting to beat players no one has heard of? 

On Saturday, she didn't have a clunker. She tried to muscle up and be her old dominant self. She won the first game with four straight points. But then Muguruza powered back to hold serve.

People have tried to overpower Williams before. In fact, she and her sister Venus changed the game of women's tennis by bringing so much muscle into it. The rest of the tour started muscling up, too, in an arms race—a biceps race? But for years, Serena kept winning anyway.

Alastair Grant/Associated Press

Williams is like a tennis history lesson all by herself. But usually when people try to out-pound her, they buckle.

It's on Williams to figure this out, to deal with her new reality. Just 10 months ago, she held three major trophies and was trying to win a Grand Slam—all four majors in one year. Then she lost the U.S. Open.

That was a last stand, a final shot at tour dominance. Now for the next phase. On the men's side, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal are dealing with their own new realities, too. But they are stuck with another historically great player: Novak Djokovic.

It happens. It happened to Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert, to Pete Sampras and Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe. Williams is one of them, maybe the best one.

Hard truth: There will be more great moments, but it's going to be a rocky landing, too.

 

Greg Couch covers tennis for Bleacher Report. Follow him at @gregcouch.