This was not how the WTA’s Bay Area tournament wanted to start. The new tourney had a new name. The familiar Bank of the West Classic was now the Mubadala Silicon Valley Classic – whew.
It had a new site. Gone were the lawns and leaves of the Stanford campus. The tourney had moved to the more gritty stretches of San Jose, south of where the Sharks skate. And tonight was, at least in some ways, a triumph for California tennis. Never before had a Golden State tourney drawn such a remarkably diverse crowd. This was a bit different than tennis’ traditional country club set, and rather different than the site of Serena’s last match.
Three weeks ago, Wimbledon’s Centre Court had been packed for its grand final. And this evening, the makeshift Silicon Valley stadium was also packed. Adoring fans had come out to see their hero – the best player in the history of the woman’s game – do her Superwoman thing. Certainly, in the shadow of San Jose State’s Spartan Stadium, the game’s great warrior would prevail over Brit Johanna Konta. Serena’s won 23 Slams. She now lives in San Francisco and would want to impress her new neighbors. She had easily dismissed the Aussie-born Konta 18 months ago in the 2017 Australian Open quarterfinals. The former Miami Open winner had seen her ranking fall to No. 48 while Serena’s ranking had already soared to a very un-Serena like No. 26. Konta had recently reached the final of the Nottingham Wimbledon warm-up and she won at Stanford two years ago. But Serena had prevailed here three times. Many thought “walk in the park.” Skeptics saw red flags. Konta was a tough draw.
Still, after one game, all seemed to be in control for Mrs. Williams, as the Brits call her. The most famous mom in sports went up 1-0. Gone was the body suit she’d sported at the French Open and the all-whites of Wimbledon. Tonight Serena was stunning in a fiery all-red outfit. But her game was hardly on fire. Konta, who is prone to sharing splendid tales of her inventive baking, began to cook.
Don’t be thrown off by Konta’s quirky ways. Her deliberate preparation ritual for her serve is something you might spot in the league playoffs. But Konta’s aces often left Serena lurching – the Brit blasted six.
More than this, she showed little deference for her opponent, who’s known to punish her foes. Konta was determined to “keep it on her side of the net,” to not play Serena’s reputation.
Patient, and controlling the middle of the court, Konta pushed the San Francisco resident from corner to corner. The umpire’s voice was deep and soothing. But the best woman player of all time was in deep trouble. Her slice backhands drifted long. Her forehand found the net.
“C’mon, you can do it!” yelled a courtside elder. But she couldn’t. Serena was defensive. Konta gained confidence. Often it seemed Serena would be broken at love. Konta managed eight break points and won six of them – shocking.
This was Willie Mays going 0-5 in his twilight at Shea Stadium. A sense of disbelief descended – “This cannot be.” But it was. A girl in section 208 asked, “How long can Serena go on?”
But remember, the first commandment of WTA tennis – “never underestimate a Williams.” After Serena lost the first set 6-1 in just 27 minutes the near-capacity crowd of 2,943 fans assumed Serena would now make matters right.
Wrong. The British invasion continued. Konta took total command. Yes, an occasional Serena forehand winner drew squeals. There were glimmers of hope. But then the mighty mom double-faulted.
The best server ever won only 53% of her first serves and just 27% of her second serves. Often she seemed hapless. As the summer sun set over distant palms, tour savants ran to the record book. Serena’s two greatest drubbings had come when she won only two games against Simona Halep in the 2014 WTA Championships, against Joanette Krueger twenty years ago in Oklahoma, and against Annie Miller, at 14, in her very first professional match.
Tonight proved to be the worst loss in Serena’s career.
She lost twelve games in a row and lost the match 6-1, 6-0 in a shocker that only lasted 52 dispiriting minutes. Konta has now won five straight matches in the Bay Area and has won over Serena and Venus (whom she beat in the Bank of the West final) back-to-back, so to speak.
The shocked crowd was left to shout to their Superwoman, “We love you.” They wondered what had happened, and why? Was Serena feeling the aftershocks of her Wimbledon loss? Was she thrown off by the new invasive shot clock? Was she somehow nervous or tentative playing in her new home turf, which she admitted was quite different from her native Southern California? Was it a matter of age? The grand lady is 36. Was she distracted by the soul-shifting delights of mothering? Or was it just that the greatest weapon in the history of the woman’s game had gone terribly astray? Her serves were slow and errant. She suffered seven double faults.
As fans left the new site they processed an unfamiliar feeling that they hoped was an outlier. Mighty Serena had struck out. The game’s greatest star had been crushed. And they felt crushed too.