French Open: Serena—Another Day, Another Win, Another Controversy


By Bill Simons

Serena Williams is said to be the best player in this world.

But on this Paris evening, Serena, for an agonizingly long time, was not the best player on court in her third round match against Victoria (“Don’t call me Vicky”) Azarenka.

Serena Williams‘s serve is said to be the best in tennis history. It has, said commentator Nick Lester, “a kinetic flow.” Today it had pace, but early on, its direction was errant, its impact modest.

Serena is said to be the toughest mentally in tennis. But, at least in the first set, it hardly seemed as if she could still be the favorite to defend her title and win the 2015 French Open.

She seemed just a tad flat—rather impassive.

Just weeks earlier, she and Vika had met in a memorable final in Madrid. Azarenka was up 5-1 in the first set tie-break, but faltered. Worse yet, she suffered a devastating implosion, double-faulting three times when she had match points. Devastating!

But here in Paris, Vika’s play was explosive. Her past implosion forgotten, the 27th-rankdcBelarussian who now lives in LA, returned brilliantly, often attacked, and played with unblinking purpose as she raced, in 41 shocking minutes, to a 6-3 first set win. And Vika didn’t let up.

Deep into the second set, she saved a break point to sprint to a 4-2 lead. This was the form of a power athlete who had twice won the Aussie Open and had been No. 1. Maybe Vika was doing so well because Serena’s former hitting partner Sascha Bajin is now one of her coaches. Mary Carillo asked, “Can you imagine him telling Vika exactly what [Serena] likes [to do] and doesn’t like? … It’s major intel.”

But something else also counted as major intelligence: Vika using her own significant smarts to address her Madrid mistakes with a cold reality, to try and get beyond the fact that she hadn’t won a tourney in almost two years, and Serena had beaten her in 15 of her 18 meetings; and that this could have been a match being played on the last Saturday of Roland Garros, not the first.

Just two games from a Herculean upset, Vika could breathe, the finish line was in sight. But with Serena, there’s no breathing, there’s no safety net, there’s no angst-free zone. Time and again Williams toys with disaster—a player on a precipice. Then something happens. Is it that red flags suddenly wave or that wake-up alarms suddenly blast loud? Who knows?

Whatever the reason, almost on cue, Serena broke Vika’s serve to win four straight games and take the second set 6-4. Azarenka then took a bathroom break and bravely re-asserted herself to go up 2-0 early in the third. Carillo noted, “This is an amazing reset by Azarenka.” Even more amazing was that Serena again stepped up—as she has done so often. The battler has scored a record 30 comebacks after losing the first set. Incredibly aggressive, focused and full of will, she hit the lines and powered her way through six straight games to win 3-6, 6-4, 6-2 and reach the fourth round—where she will meet fellow American Sloane Stephens.

Still, this dramatic battle will not be remembered because Serena became the first WTA player ever to win 50 matches in all four majors, but rather because Serena, almost on cue today, became enbroilled in yet another controversy. Yes, Serena was right when she said after the match, “You don’t win Grand Slams by being unethical.” Still, when Williams was up 5-4 in the second set and she had her fourth set point, Vika hit a critical forehand winner on the line that was wrongly called out. Clearly Serena’s play wasn’t hindered by the late “out” call, but both the umpire and Serena refused to give Vika the point. Words were exchanged, baffled glances were traded.

Later Azarenka would say, “That call was bullshit, and everybody knows it. But it’s part of the game … It wasn’t a fair call.” The controversy brought to mind Serena’s US Open match against Jennifer Capriati, when a series of wretched calls against Williams led to apologies from the USTA and the long-awaited installation of the Hawk-Eye line-calling system.

Today, Azarenka said she didn’t expect any apologies. But she and Serena both called for the creation of some kind of electronic review system to recall such bad calls. “Sometimes we need to have a review,” said Vika. “You know, to have a damn review, because it was so clear … that was so damn clear. You cannot make these mistakes at this level. I’m not saying … [that] because of that point I lost the match … [But] the ball was touching the net and [then] he says it’s not a late call … It’s definitely not easy on the player when you get screwed like that … I think the review, a little TV screen … and [you could] just look it over.”

But now the match is over. Vika is going home. Serena is going on. And we are thinking that, over and over, Serena has found a way. Well, then again, that is why Serena Williams is Serena Williams.

WILL IT PROVE TO BE THE MOST TELLING COMMENTARY OF THE WEEK? Broadcaster Chris Bowers said, “Talk of Nadal‘s being underprepared and vulnerable on certain shots, including his forehand, has looked ridiculous in his first three matches … [only] six games lost against Andrey Kuznetsov, this is good … But he’s human, [and] you have to have seven good days.”


Years ago, when Gael Monfils was first doing his over-the-top, showboat thing on Suzanne Lenglen Court, the proud American veteran Andy Roddick told the Frenchman he wasn’t good enough to indulge in those antics. But all that has changed.

Now, yet another startling Monfils comeback is fresh in our minds, and with a probably fabulous Monfils vs. Federer match on the horizon, here is a little refresher course on “La Monf,” who arguably is the most charismatic player in tennis since the days of Jimmy Connors and Ilie Nastase.

• Monfils once said, “In tennis, sometimes it’s too stiff—some guys want to keep [their] emotions [inside]. Me, I’m not like this … My culture is to be very fun and enjoy the life.”

After one, now-forgotten first-round match at the US Open, Courtney Nguyen wrote, “Infuriating, awe-inspiring, underachieving. These are the words that come to mind whenever I watch Monsieur Monfils. He flies around the court with complete disregard for life and limb, he tries to hit, literally, the dumbest of shots in the book, and he hobbles around and calls the trainer one minute, only to chase down the most ridiculous of balls the next. It’s enough to make the most die-hard of tennis fans swear him off and wonder why we should care when he clearly doesn’t. But we don’t swear him off and we keep tuning in because we know that in any given match, in any given point, we might see something we have never seen before.”

• After struggling against Marcos Baghdatis in front of a hostile crowd, Monfils said, “I was thinking this was like the film Troy. The story of a guy all alone against an army.”

After losing his fifth match in a row to Roger Federer, Monfils said, “Roger has this way of disguising his shots. Especially, if it’s a big point, with his little short-angle [backhand] chip. It’s sort of a ball-buster, and I’m really up the creek. I think I’ve got him, then he pulls that kind of garbage on me. It’s frustrating. But there’s nothing I can do about it.”

SOCK DRAWS ON HIS POWER: Jack Sock, ranked No. 37, beat Croatian teen Borna Coric today, and is the last American man in the French Open. The 22-year-old Nebraska native, who has one of the most imposing topspin forehands this side of Rafa Nadal, will face the Spaniard in the fourth round. Sock is the youngest American to reach the fourth round at Roland Garros since Pete Sampras in ’93.