Day 3 at the French Open was rolling along as expected, with nary a significant upset in sight … and then No. 111 Virginie Razzano of France scored the biggest victory of her career and handed Serena Williams her first loss in the opening round of a Grand Slam tournament. Razzano pulled off the 4-6, 7-6 (5), 6-3 win on Tuesday in dramatic fashion, prevailing in a 23-minute, 12-deuce final game in which Williams — who had been 46-0 in the first round of majors — saved seven match points.
Here are some thoughts on what was an absolute shocker of a result, which played out over three hours in Paris.
• Did Serena fool us or did we fool ourselves?: Let’s step back and look at how we got here. Williams was the presumptive favorite entering the tournament. She was riding a 17-match winning streak on clay. She beat Victoria Azarenka and Maria Sharapova handily in Madrid. She was fit and hungry.
This is an instance, though, where the trend didn’t match the truth. Here’s the truth: Williams hasn’t won a major in almost two years, her only French Open title came in 2002 and she hasn’t made it past the quarterfinals at Roland Garros since 2003. In other words, in the grand scheme of things, tagging Serena with the favorite label was actually a case of being fooled by her champion’s aura, her winning streak that was built primarily on non-red clay, and her victories over two prominent opponents on a surface in Madrid that rewarded her brand of first-strike power tennis.
But what became clear on Tuesday by the middle of the second set, with Williams unable to shake Razzano, was that the American’s power game wasn’t clicking. As the sun began to set and the temperature dropped, it got harder and harder to hit through the court, and as Serena grew frustrated, she started spraying balls everywhere. Her decision-making was questionable. She had an opponent who was visibly cramping in her right leg, yet Williams wanted to end the points as quickly as possible. Instead of grinding down Razzano, she wanted to hit winners.
Say this for Razzano, though: Despite her cramping, she retrieved incredibly well. That doesn’t mean the 29-year-old didn’t get nervous or have her moments where you thought she’d crumble. But given the circumstances, she was very impressive. She became only the fourth woman ranked outside the top 100 to beat Williams.
• Serena has Federeritis: Razzano did well to stay with Williams in the first two sets, successfully holding her serve to push the second set to the limit. But Serena rolled to a 5-1 lead in the tiebreaker, and a respectable straight-set loss looked inevitable for Razzano. But Razzano won the next point and, during a rally at 5-2, she hit a lob that clipped the back of the baseline. Williams stopped the point — though, really, I’m not sure Serena would have been able to get the ball back even if she played it — and umpire Eva Asderaki (yes, the official whom Williams berated during last year’s U.S. Open final) checked the mark and ruled the ball in. Williams didn’t win another point in the tiebreaker, smacking errors all over the place, and she mentally checked out for a good 30 minutes after that.
When it comes to Serena, are the expectations (hers and ours) unfairly high? Dismiss the 13-time major champion at your own peril, but put your faith in her and risk egg on your face. The fact is that Williams is 30 and she’s not getting any younger. Based on her emotional reaction to losing the second set — she sat on the changeover looking on the verge of tears — I suspect Williams knows this too. These opportunities to win majors after doing all the right things — putting in the hard work, getting into the best shape of her life and playing a full schedule with lead-up tournaments — will diminish with time. Williams, just like Roger Federer, is human. They know this. They feel this pressure. They know the gap between them and the field isn’t what it once was and that pressure plays tricks on you, even if you’re one of the strongest competitors in the game.
Williams went on a mental walkabout during this match and basically spotted Razzano a 5-0 lead in the final set. Five years ago, she doesn’t do that. Five years ago, she doesn’t spot a player outside the top 100 five games just because she needs a moment to feel sorry for herself.
• Sharapova’s golden opportunity: I’ve been saying repeatedly that Sharapova is going to win this tournament, but that she would need a lot of help to do so. That help came in the form of an inspired Razzano, whose victory knocks Williams out of a quarter of the draw she shared with Sharapova. Williams, remember, has won seven consecutive matches against Sharapova dating to 2005. Sharapova won red-clay tuneups in Stuttgart and Rome, and she opened her Roland Garros campaign with a 6-0, 6-0 hammering of Alexandra Cadantu on Tuesday.
That said, I wouldn’t count out Azarenka. She has something to prove after her error-strewn first-round survival of Alberta Brianti, but if she can find her rhythm over the next few matches, she’ll be dangerous. Let’s not forget: She’s had two convincing victories against Sharapova this year, though Sharapova won their only meeting on clay, indoors in Germany.
• Raise a glass for Razzano: Last year, Razzano’s fiancé and coach, Stephane Vidal, died at age 32 of a brain tumor a mere eight days before the start of the French Open. At his request she played the tournament with a heavy heart, taking Court Chatrier in tears and eventually losing to Jarmila Gajdosova 6-3, 6-1 in the first round. “I felt a lot of emotion, a lot of pain, on court,” she said after that match. “The pain is permanent within me. But it felt good to be surrounded by so many people and to be here. I tried to pay tribute to Stephane. It was almost a ‘mission impossible,’ but I did my best.”
Fast-forward a year, and she took the same court and pulled off one of the biggest upsets in Grand Slam history. It wasn’t “mission impossible.” It was just “mission this might take a little longer than you think.”