Serena Williams never quite lets us in.
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Her news conferences and interviews are acts. So when she throws a tantrum or breaks down crying or, better yet, plays doubles with her sister, Venus, and interacts in such a loving way, it is so different and revealing.
Something has been wrong with her lately, and it’s hard to know what it is. But she was awful at the French Open and was overly emotional during her early matches at Wimbledon, pumping her fist and screaming “Come on!” even after her opponent would miss a simple shot. She was winning close matches but not playing well.
On Tuesday, in the quarterfinals against defending Wimbledon champ Petra Kvitova, Williams sat between games with a dazed look in her eyes, held her hands up and took slow, deep breaths. She was calming herself as a routine.
It would end up as the best big match she has played since last year’s US Open, when she was still in her 20s. Williams beat Kvitova 6-3, 7-5, and it was the old Williams, dominant with the serve, powerful.
Still not moving particularly well, but whatever — Williams is two wins from her fifth Wimbledon title.
She was asked about her upcoming semifinal match.
“You know, it’s going to be another match where I have absolutely nothing to lose,” Williams said. “I can just go out there and enjoy myself and have fun.”
That was Williams acting. Nothing to lose? She wasn’t trying to fool you with that answer, though, so much as trying to fool herself.
Williams is feeling pressure for some reason. And maybe it is the result of her erratic play lately, or maybe it is the cause of it. She hasn’t let us in far enough to know for sure.
But after barely winning Monday in another poorly played match, she talked about how hard she took her first-round loss at the French Open.
It was the first time she ever had lost in the first round of a major.
“It has a spillover effect,” Williams said. “And I need to get over that. I was really upset and I’ve just got to move on. So that’s what I’m working on.”
And after she finished saying that Monday, Williams talked with her father, Richard, and with Venus, and some members of her team. She wouldn’t say exactly what they told her, but there was a theme.
“I just took to heart what everyone said,” she said. “I really prayed about it, just to have calmness of mind and just go forward and do the best I can do, whether that’s winning or losing.”
This is Williams beginning to open up. It explained her excessive emotion throughout the tournament. But she still would take it only so far.
So I asked her: Why wouldn’t you have calmness of mind?
“I don’t know,” she said. “Sometimes I put pressure on myself and I’m just really amped up too much. Sometimes I just need to relax and smile and just, like, take a deep breath.”
“I think me in general, and I think a lot of people, tend to forget that.”
What did she say earlier about having nothing to lose? Williams started the year by losing early at the Australian Open to a player ranked outside the top 50. Then, she was great-Serena again, unbeatable. Then came the French. Then the shaky play at Wimbledon.
For so long, she always was her best at the majors. She tended to lose in lesser tournaments, sometimes on purpose, out of lack of interest in them.
But in the majors, Williams was dominant. Now, maybe she has been shaken by her uncontrolled play at the majors. The truth is, she’s 30 now, which is the start of old age in tennis. It’s common for players that age to start losing their consistency.
Williams isn’t a common player. She can win majors for a few more years, but she cannot always count on that extra level being there for every match in every major.
She does seem to be slowing down, too. And she always has felt that the outcome of every match was entirely decided by her. It bugs people that she won’t give credit to an opponent for beating her.
The truth is, Williams, like most champions, thinks the opponent rarely has any say in the matter. That’s a good thing.
Now, she can’t count on herself as much. And that seems to be stressing her out. At least, as far as she’ll let you in. There could be personal issues, too. Or not. She won’t say.
Whatever it is, it had to feel good to her to play big Tuesday in a big match again. Kvitova is inconsistent and unreliable. But she was good Tuesday, too.
Serena was just Serena again.
Stay positive and stay focused.
That’s what she was telling herself throughout the match. Just that.
Nothing to lose.