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Was Ill-Fated Rio Olympics Appearance a Mistake for Serena Williams?

Merlisa Lawrence Corbett@@merlisaFeatured ColumnistAugust 10, 2016

Serena Williams appears frustrated during a loss at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
Serena Williams appears frustrated during a loss at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

After a dismal stay in Rio de Janeiro for the 2016 Summer Olympics, Serena Williams might consider this altered greeting for the standard postcard home: Wish I weren't here. 

Elina Svitolina defeated Williams, 6-4, 6-3, in the third round of the 2016 Games. The loss ends Williams' gold-medal title defense and brings her tournament to a shocking halt. 

Williams and her sister, Venus, lost their first-round match in doubles against Lucie Safarova and Barbora Strycova on Sunday. Venus will be playing with Rajeev Ram in mixed doubles, so she still has a shot at winning an Olympic medal in Rio. Serena, however, will be going home empty-handed.

Imagine that: Three rounds into the Olympics, Serena Williams has been reduced to being a spectator at mixed doubles. Not exactly a golden moment.

In a brief interview with a U.S. Tennis Association spokesperson, Williams said (via the Associated Press), "It didn't work out the way I wanted it to ... The better player won." 

One has to wonder if she'll look back on Rio and wonder what the point was.

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The WTA Tour isn't issuing points for what happens at the Olympics. Thus this loss, however shocking, has zero impact on Williams' ranking or standing in the points race to Singapore.

TennisNow @Tennis_Now

An absolute shocker has just occurred, as Elina Svitolina knocks off 4-time Olympic Gold medalist Serena Williams. https://t.co/xmfV6NnrSd

Williams has four Olympic gold medals (one in singles and three in doubles). Another gold in singles would have bested Steffi Graf, who has one gold, a silver and a bronze.

Even if Williams had won another gold in Rio, however, its impact on her legacy would be minimal. Grand Slam titles carry far more weight than Olympic medals. 

Williams' decision to play in Rio could wind up being a setback. In late July, she withdrew from the Rogers Cup due to an inflamed shoulder. Judging from the unusually high number of double-faults Williams had in Rio, she may have been better served skipping the Olympics and resting up for the U.S. Open.  

Williams is widely considered the greatest server in the history of women's tennis, as her fastest serves top 120 mph. In Rio, however, her serve became somewhat of a liability. She had eight double-faults and just five aces against Svitolina. Some of her serves dipped into the 70 mph range. 

The average speed of her first serve in the Wimbledon final was 109 mph, according to Wimbledon.com. She also served 13 aces to just three double-faults and had a first-serve percentage of 65 percent. 

Tumaini Carayol, a freelancer who covers tennis for EuroSport, tweeted that although Williams has a flare for the dramatic, he believed her play against Svitolina indicated "a pretty clear shoulder injury to me." 

Tumaini Carayol @tumcarayol

Serena can make a drama out of anything, but that seemed like a pretty clear shoulder injury to me.

In her first-round match against Daria Gavrilova, Williams hit just 46 percent of her first serves in. She had seven aces and five double-faults. Her first-serve percentage dropped to 45 percent in the second round against Alize Cornet. She had just two aces and five double-faults. 

Williams never seemed quite settled in Rio, as evidenced by the fact she leaves the tournament with more double-faults than aces. During her match against Svitolina, Williams grimaced often and appeared to be fighting off tears. It was as though her body refused to cooperate with what she had in mind. 

Fox Sports' Chris Chase noted:

Serena was listless from the start, dropping the first set (which isn't rare) but then, right when she usually starts to psych herself up to begin her second-set comeback, she seemed to retreat and wave a white flag. Serena's iron will is one of her greatest strengths. She can gut out matches and earns wins even when she's having an off day. None of that was on display in Rio.

Williams must now set her sights on winning the U.S. Open and retaining her No. 1 ranking, two things that will register high in the greatest-of-all-time debates. 

Unless she changes her mind about skipping Cincinnati, Williams will head into the U.S. Open with no real hard-court prep. The slow courts in Rio are nothing like the faster surface she'll play on at Flushing Meadows.

She'll also have just played three singles matches since Wimbledon. 

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - AUGUST 07:  Serena Williams of the United States stumbles during her match with Daria Gavrilova of Australia in their first round match on Day 2 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at the Olympic Tennis Centre on August 7, 2016 in Rio d
Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

The silver lining for Williams in Rio might be that No. 2 Angelique Kerber is still competing. The 28-year-old German is already within 2,000 points of Williams. If Williams does indeed skip Cincy, that lead will shrink even further, giving Kerber a chance of overtaking her at No. 1.

After last year's U.S. Open, Williams didn't play a single match. Thus, anything she wins in the fall would just pad her lead. 

Williams is tantalizingly close to catching Graf for most consecutive weeks (187) at No. 1. That record means far more than a second Olympic gold medal in singles. 

With her legacy on the line and her career winding down, was going to Rio worth it? Though it may have seemed like a good idea at the time, if playing in the Olympics diminished Williams' health at all, then it was a far too costly road trip. 

Unless otherwise noted, all statistics via NBCOlympics.com.

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