Smash pow-wow: what’s going on with Serena?

Published by tennismash

Serena Williams shows her frustration during the 2016 BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells; Getty Images

Serena’s MIA, Grigor’s behaving badly, and the world’s top women continue to struggle to win routine early-round matches on a consistent basis. Our editorial panel of Vivienne Christie, Paul Moore, Matt Trollope and Leigh Rogers give their thoughts on these storylines and more as the action unfolds this week at the Mutua Madrid Open.

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Serena Williams hasn’t been seen on a tennis court in nearly six weeks since falling in the fourth round in Miami. The latest news coming out of her camp is her withdrawal from Madrid due to illness. What’s going on with her?

VC: This time last year, numbers were adding up in the most impressive way for the world No.1. Now they’re dwindling to correspondingly alarming lows. In three events since that US Open loss, she’s played just 16 matches. “Illness” – which also kept Serena out of Middle Eastern events in February and March – seems a stretch when she’s launched another fashion range and made a cameo in a Beyonce video while missing from recent events. An Australian Open finals run suggests Serena still has the capability; the absence of on-court time suggests that at age 34 and with many records on her CV, her legendary hunger might at last be waning.

PM: It’s easy to conjecture about Serena, but the reality is that she always has – and always will – do what she wants. And at the moment, she doesn’t seem to be inclined to do much on the court apart from train (presumably) and play Grand Slams (assuming that she turns up for Roland Garros). Luckily for her, she’s probably the only player on the WTA tour who could take that kind of time ‘off’ and still go into a tournament as the firm favourite.

MT: Look, this illness could be completely legit. And in the professional world of Serena Williams – she of the famously limited schedule – six weeks is hardly enough time in absence to start panicking. But something has certainly been amiss in 2016. A prominent American tennis commentator said recently that they felt Serena’s mammoth effort in chasing the calendar year Slam in 2015, and subsequently falling so agonisingly and disappointingly short, had irrevocably changed something in her. I can see the logic – that was most likely her last shot at ever achieving the sport’s holy grail. She’s already missed her chance this year, and can anyone see her doing it in 2017, the year she turns 36? To have blown a golden opportunity so spectacularly must have been the bitterest pill to swallow. And she’s been playing jaded tennis ever since. It’s kind of like the funk she found herself in for much of 2014 – after a stunning 2013, it was almost as if she was burned out. I feel it’s a similar story this season, after such an impressive physical and mental effort in 2015. She may still win a Slam this year and we’d all be completely foolish to write her off just yet. But the sting seems to have gone out of her game.

LR: I think the question is, does Serena still have the motivation? It is no secret that the Grand Slams are her major goals and her reduced schedule is made to peak at those tournaments. What concerns me most is she seems too preoccupied with life. In recent weeks it is her appearance in a Beyonce film clip and plans to be executive producer of a movie that have made headlines. It is a far cry from the dominating Serena of 2012 who said: “Lately I’ve just been focused only on tennis, nothing else, no distractions, no life.” If she wants to equal Steffi Graf’s record of 22 Grand Slams, it is time to cut the distractions.

Without an ATP title in almost two years and having slipped to world No.28, Grigor Dimitrov blew a set and a 5-2 lead in the Istanbul final against the unheralded Diego Schwartzman – playing in his first ATP final – before destroying enough racquets to get defaulted from the match in the third set. Where does Dimitrov go from here?

VC: To Wilson, his racquet supplier, of course. And then to Diego Schwartzman to apologise for robbing him of the chance to celebrate winning a championship point after the 87th-ranked Argentine registered his best-ever week on the ATP World Tour. Beyond that, the most important requirement for Dimitrov is surely an absence of panic? Granted, at world No.28 he’s still sitting far below the top five heights that many predicted for him – but after a dismal second half to 2015 Grigor has amassed two finals and an upset of Andy Murray this season. Any success on clay – his least suitable surface – should be seen as a bonus before the more serious rebuilding begins on grass.

PM: Is Grigor a tortured genius or just someone who has lost their way? It’s tricky to tell, but I tend to think it’s the latter. A little like his marketability, there are no question marks over his talent. But for whatever reason he’s lost his focus over the last 12-18 months, and at the pointy end of the men’s field no player can afford to do that. Will he find a way back? That’s up to him. If he doesn’t, he’ll live a good life as a millionaire playboy tennis player. If he does, he has everything it takes to be a great, great player.

MT: This was truly disappointing from a player ranked in the top 10 less than two years ago. First of all, he should have closed out this match comfortably. Secondly, he’s far too experienced and talented to completely fade away in the third set like that. And finally, it’s really petulant to rob your opponent of their winning moment via a default. “I have two big events coming up and hope that I can face one of the top guys there,” Dimitrov said after the loss. If he performs or behaves anything like he did in Istanbul, he’s not making a dint in the games of any of the world’s very best. This slump seems entirely mental – he’s fit and possesses all the shots, but really needs to channel his best Nadal or Ferrer and to begin digging out victories with some fight and learning to win ugly. That can only come from within.

LR: Dimitrov’s behaviour to get defaulted is extremely disappointing – but perhaps provides a shocking insight into his current mindset. Frustrated and lacking self-belief are not the qualities of a top player, so unless Dimitrov can overcome such mental barriers he is never going to return to the top 10. There is no denying he has the talent to be there – but he’s a long way off at the moment.

Another week, more carnage on the WTA tour. The latest? Losses by top two seeds Radwanska and Kerber in Madrid. The tournament is already without multiple winners Serena and Sharapova and the top quarter of the draw is now completely devoid of seeds. Who is most likely to step into the void and make a consistent run on clay in the lead-up to Roland Garros?

VC: If you must single out one name, Victoria Azarenka is the obvious choice. The winner of three titles in 2016, the Belarusian carries some impressive momentum into Madrid – and even if she’s never really thrived on clay, you sense that the re-energised Vika has more motivation now. That said, how can you single one player when there are so many potential challengers? They include Garbine Muguruza on home soil, Petra Kvitova with a new coach and confidence as defending champion, proven clay performers Carla Suarez Navarro and Lucie Safarova … or any number of women capable of capitalising on such a wildly unpredictable season.

PM: The WTA is in a funny place at the moment, and in all honesty is suffering from a lack of consistency amongst almost all of its top players. But there is Vika, and Azarenka on top form is not only capable of winning Roland Garros (and the tournaments that lead up to it), but of mounting a serious challenge to Serena’s dominance at the top of the tree.

MT: Last week many of us were tipping Kerber as a potential French Open winner! But her result is perhaps an anomaly – results in Madrid, given the tournament’s altitude, often don’t reflect what happens closer to sea-level in Paris. And Radwanska has always been a non-factor on red dirt – she simply doesn’t have enough power to hit through a slow clay court. This week in Madrid I’m tipping Azarenka and Muguruza to go deep – the latter is beginning to show signs of more consistently good form, and the former should have so much confidence that she can win anywhere, regardless of the surface. As the claycourt season unfolds, I think these two, and Kerber too, could make the biggest waves in Rome and Paris.

LR: Victoria Azarenka is without doubt the red-hot favourite now. Alarmingly she is the only top 10 player who has showed any consistency this season and the wide open top-half should allow her to play her way into form on clay. The bottom half features well-credentialed claycourters in Halep, Bacsinszky, Muguruza, Suarez Navarro, Stosur and Safarova. This is a big chance for one of them to step up after indifferent starts to the season. I think Suarez Navarro is the one to watch.

With all the stars back in action at the prestigious ATP-WTA event in Madrid, what’s one thing you’re most looking forward to as the action unfolds?

VC: I’m sure I’m not alone here – a Novak Djokovic v Rafael Nadal final. Should it eventuate, it will be the 49th career meeting between the superstars; world No.1 Djokovic has won pair’s last six matches to edge ahead 25-23 in their head-to-head record, but Nadal is a four-time Madrid champion with the momentum of two titles in his past two events. The claycourt season was always going to be an important marker in Rafa’s career and a Madrid meeting could be extremely telling ahead of the French Open.

PM: Seeing which of the men are left standing at the end of this week. With Rafa resurgent, Roger resurrected and Djokovic determined to get his season back on track after his Monte Carlo wobble, Madrid is shaping up to be one heck of a battle. As is Rome, and Roland Garros … basically it’s going to be an amazing month of tennis.

MT: The potential second-round meeting between Stan Wawrinka and Nick Kyrgios in Madrid, obviously.

LR: There is a lot of hype around Dominic Thiem and deservedly so, with two titles so far this season. He faces Juan Martin del Potro in the first round in Madrid and has a potential third round clash with Roger Federer. If the 22-year-old is to be considered a real contender at Roland Garros, he needs to make a statement this week. With such a tough draw, it will be telling how he handles it and just how far he progresses.

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