World Number One Serena Williams was expected to win the gold medal in both singles and women’s doubles alongside sister Venus for the United States in the Rio Olympic games. Serena, the best player in the world if not all-time, had never lost an Olympic match with her sister – the two have won three gold medals together. So when they were beaten in their first round match, there was a collective shock that could be felt in Rio, and all over the tennis world. United States women’s Olympic tennis coach Mary Joe Fernandez saying that Venus had been sick provided a sense of clarity, but the loss was still surprising. But it wasn’t anything to worry about. Even the best lose sometimes.
But Ukrainian Elina Svitolina – the 20th-ranked player in the world – defeating Serena 6-4, 6-3 to end the 22-time Grand Slam champion’s Olympics entirely in the third round was nearly as staggering as when Roberta Vinci ended her pursuit of the calendar year Grand Slam at last year’s U.S. Open. Suddenly there was reason to wonder if something was wrong. Two Serena losses so close together? That’s a rare thing.
“It’s obviously disappointing but, you know, she played really well and I think the better player today won,” Williams said in a statement instead of addressing the media, adding how important competing for her country is. “It was a career opportunity. It didn’t work out the way I wanted to, but at least I was able to make it to Rio. That was one of my goals.”
It may not have worked out as she wanted, but that is okay. Athletes lose, even Serena, even on the biggest of stages when she could have claimed a fifth and possibly sixth gold medal.
“Obviously [I’m] very surprised but this is why you have to go out there and play,” ESPN commentator Patrick McEnroe said. “Obviously she really wanted to win that, another gold, I’m sure. So she put the pressure on herself. But there’s a lot of good young players coming up in the women’s game. Svitolina’s another one.”
The head-to-head advantage that Serena had before the loss was lopsided – outside of one set that Svitolina won in their four previous matches, she won on average fewer than two games per set in the eight that she lost. At this year’s French Open, Serena cruised 6-1, 6-1 in just 62 minutes. But as McEnroe said, athletes have to play the match to attain a result, win or lose.
“It’s one of my dreams to play against her and to beat her is just,” Svitolina paused. “I don’t think I was even dreaming about that.”
The net result is that Serena Williams lost without having a chance at a medal. Sure, some people may question what that means for the rest of her season – will she bounce back?
But she simply did not play her best against Svitolina. Hitting eight double faults in 65 service points and making an unforced error a little less than once every three points on average is not Serena’s best, or anywhere near it. But these things happen, and Svitolina was able to hold her nerve to take advantage. Was Serena’s shoulder bothering her enough to make a difference? Maybe, maybe not. Regardless, Williams’ constant success has created a stigma in which virtually every loss is borderline-shocking.
“She takes a lot of heat because she carries a lot of weight. She carries a lot of records,” Murphy Jensen, who coaches the Washington Kastles World Team Tennis team that Serena played for in 2008, 2009 and 2011, said. “She’s the industry standard. Any girl growing up says, ‘I’ve got to play like that to have any shot at a great career.’ She’s the standard of the future of this game.”
Williams will now turn her focus to reclaiming a title that she has won six times at the U.S. Open, as she looks to break her Open era Grand Slam record tie with Steffi Graf by winning a 23rd major. After suffering perhaps her most stunning loss ever in Flushing Meadows to the Italian Vinci last year, Serena has some unfinished business in New York.
“In a case like Serena, she hates losing more than she likes winning,” Jensen said. “That’s why she’s arguably the greatest women’s tennis player of all-time if not the greatest tennis player, men or women.”
Again, Williams’ Olympics disappointment is not “no big deal,” especially to her. But if you compare the importance of Rio to a Grand Slam, the last time she lost this early at a major was 2014 Wimbledon. She has won five of eight Grand Slams since, making the final in two more.
Serena will be back, and perhaps ready to make history at the U.S. Open.