PARISIAN SUNSET – Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka Fall in France

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Photo by Art Seitz

Bill Simons

Paris

On a memorable New York night last September we were stunned by a US Open final filled with drama and trauma. The greatest women player of all time imploded and fell to a Japanese player who would emerge as a shining star.

Eight months later, as warm Paris breezes blew, the singular Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka, the brightest light to come into our game since Maria Sharapova, fell. There was little of the trauma that we saw on that New York stage, but there was much drama.

SERENA’S CONTAINMENT POLICY FALTERS

My old history professor made it crystal clear. If you remember one thing about the Cold War, remember that George Kennan changed everything. Translation: American diplomat George Kennan created the containment policy, the mindset that shaped the world. It had a devastating simplicity. America and the West had to do all they could to contain the Soviet Union’s expansionist desires. For years Russia tried to counter Kennan’s policy. Today, legendary Serena tried to counter another Kenin. That would be a 20-year-old kid who (conveniently for this tale) was born in Moscow. Sofia Kenin was just ten months old when Serena won her first US Open. But today there would be no containing this missile-blasting warrior who prevailed 6-2, 7-5, in her not-so-cold war against Serena.

“She wears her visor down, like blinkers on a horse,” noted Gigi Salmon. The Floridian focuses. Her staccato strides after a point shout loud: “Sonya Kenin is in the house!” Yes, she admitted, Serena was a superpower – “She has done amazing things.” But Kenin had no interest in détente. She was out on one of the great arenas in the game – there was a match to win and ICBM’s, so to speak, to be fired. Time and again her groundies pinned Serena and had her on her back feet. Here was a clear missile gap – and there were no fallout shelters in site. Williams offered death stares, but she seemed slow. She had trouble getting out of the corners, her weapons misfired.

Then again, Serena, even though she’s a 37-year-old mother and has played so few matches this year, is Serena. You knew she’d counter Kenin’s kid revolution. From a set and a break down, Williams blasted three aces in one game and grabbed a 4-3 lead. All the while, the unsparing French crowd got a taste of the sometimes sour Sofia. The American swiped at marks in the clay, kicked the court, smashed her racket on the net and squabbled over line calls. Parisians booed an American – what else is new?

But it was Sofia’s day. She called on her growing confidence. Now No. 35, she won in Hobart early this year, reached the Acapulco final, and was the hero of our Fed Cup win over Switzerland. In a rushed press conference in which the impatient Williams chased Dominic Thiem from the interview room, Serena conceded that Kenin “hit pretty much inches from the line, and I haven’t played anyone like that in a long time.”

In other words, on this day there was no containing this rising talent, who is coached by her Russian dad Alex and could go on to be a Grand Slam champion.

As French shadows deepened, sages wondered about Serena’s twilight. Will she ever be able to equal Margret Court’s long-elusive record of 24 Slams? Could this be the last French rodeo for the great one?

In any case, Serena, who’s played so little this year, said she might seek a wildcard entry into a Wimbledon warm-up tourney. In the meantime, Kenin’s Russian dad and her backers couldn’t contain their collective joy. But, thank goodness, her next match won’t have anything to do with the Communist Party. She’ll face Ash Barty – and that’ll be no party.

OSAKA – “LOSING IS PROBABLY THE BEST THING”

The four previous times Naomi Osaka went out of the French Open it was in the third round – few noticed. This year, when she lost 6-4, 6-2 to No. 42, Katerina Sinikova, everyone noticed. Amidst high drama, Osaka had collected two majors in a row. She’d won 16 straight Slam matches. She was No. 1, the new queen of tennis and the most compelling young star in the game.

Okay, she lost the first set of her first match in Paris, 6-0. But she’d stormed back. She’d fallen behind in the second round against Victoria Azarenka, but had bravely turned that around too. Sluggish starts, stunning resiliency and fearless comebacks are her thing. She doesn’t flinch. Instead she blasts, she recovers, she finds a way. But not today. At crunch time she netted a backhand to the open court. She hit a key groundie long. She double faulted. She lost.

Naomi has found her way into the hearts of many. But she’s never gotten beyond the third round in Paris. And of course, her return to Earth wasn’t a question of whether – it just was a matter of when. She was bound to come down – perhaps even crash – after her fairy tale rise. Big pay days, heady fashion shoots, hefty endorsement contracts, private jets, giddy adulation and Houdini-like comebacks – the hype machine roared. The kid had to be overwhelmed.

At her press conference after her loss, the honest,21-year-old opened up big time. Can we call it a confessional? She said that on a scale of 1 to 10, her level of disappointment was 100 and added the following.

“Usually I find Grand Slams very freeing and fun. This time around I was kind of tense the entire time. I don’t want to say I feel depressed, but I do. It’s a natural part of life, especially if you train super hard..and then don’t perform how you want to…Saying ‘I’m depressed’ is a very strong statement. Because I felt that way before, and it’s not as extreme as that. So, I’d just say I’m very disappointed…and wish I could have done better.

“Today I felt very tired. Like, the other matches, too, I had this headache…I’m thinking it is just my stress…There’s been a weight on me…because everything is sort of new. I have played the French Open before, but not in this circumstance…It hasn’t been the happiest of times. You guys are more used to it because you’re tennis journalists, you know…

People outside look at the rankings [and say] ‘Oh, she’s supposed to win because the other girl is ranked 5 million hundred…[But] these people, they’re really good…It’s weird, but losing is probably the best thing that could have happened. I was overthinking this calendar Slam. This is something that I’ve wanted to do forever, but if it was that easy, everyone would have done it. I just have to keep training hard and put myself in a position again to do it hopefully…

“I know there are some people that love this time of the year. I’m definitely not one of those people…I haven’t been able to relax since I got here. I have been tense, even when I’m sleeping…I have so many thoughts going on… But for now, like, [I’m] peace-ing out of this tournament, I’m going home, like, ‘Bye, I’m sorry, I’m not gonna miss you guys.'” (smiling)

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