“Yeah, I know, Serena lost the first set to Makarova, I saw that. She was down in the second, too. You know this is how she does it. She’s not moving well, she’s shanking everything in sight, she’s about to bust her racquet, and a week later she wins the tournament and everyone says, ‘I’ll never doubt Serena again, she can do anything, win a Slam blindfolded.’
"What’s that? Did I see the last game? I watched for a while, Makarova was hanging pretty tough up 5-3, I’ll bet she thought she had a chance to win. I didn't see the end, though. When Serena aced on her on match point, I started playing around with this new app for my phone. This thing can translate seagull cries into English. Pretty obvious what was coming next for Makarova, right? Sort of feel sorry for her, what did she think was going to happen . . . Wait, what? Makarova won? Serena missed on match point?”
I’m guessing that you, like me, were waiting patiently but confidently for Serena Williams to make her inevitable hair-raising comeback today against Ekaterina Makarova in the fourth round at the Australian Open. More than any pro since Bjorn Borg, the phrase, “you can never count her out” applies to Serena. She knows it, too. How many other players would wait until they were down 2-6, 3-5, 0-15 to pump her first for one of the only times in the match?
When Serena’s final backhand floated harmlessly wide, and Makarova had her well-deserved 6-2, 6-3 win, though, I realized that I was waiting for a different — younger, less-ill, less-injured — Serena from the one we’ve seen for the last year and a half. This loss reminded me that, despite all of the back-from-the-brink Grand Slam wins that Williams has entertained us with over the years, we haven’t seen one in a while. The last time she pulled one out and went on to win a major was at Wimbledon in 2009, when she saved match point against Elena Dementieva in the semifinals.
I waited for something similar to happen at Wimbledon last year against Marion Bartoli; it didn’t happen. I waited when she played Sam Stosur at the U.S. Open; again, Williams couldn’t hold at the end and force Stosur to serve it out. And I really waited for it to happen against the 23-year-old, 56th-ranked Makarova, a player with nothing like the talent or career record of Bartoli or Stosur. No dice once more. Again Serena couldn’t hold and make Makarova earn it on her own serve.
What made it even stranger, or “worse,” if you’re a Serena fan, is how passive she was at the end. The rifled winners, the famous fist-pumps: None of it was there. Serena played safely, of all things, in the last game, content, it seemed to wait for an error from Makarova. Even when Williams connected with a big serve in that game, she was caught flat-footed by Makarova’s return. Otherwise, she guided her ground strokes, right over the baseline and past the sideline. I hadn't seen that before.
Serena went on to say that she served “horrendous,” and that her “lefty serve was better than that.” It’s true, Serena’s lowest moment came at 2-2 in the second, when she double faulted badly at break point and cried, “Oh my God.”
Of course, Williams wasn’t 100 percent. She moved poorly, and it didn’t appear that she was confident pushing off on her ankle for her serve. When she was asked if she would have played this event if it hadn't been a major, she didn't hesitate: "No way," she said.
But that wasn't an excuse. “I never blame any injury that I have,” Williams said, “because I feel like she played really well and deserved the win today.”
Yes, what about Makarova, who certainly did deserve the win today, and has now pulled off three upsets here — first Kaia Kanepi, then Vera Zvonareva, and now Serena. I happened to catch the second set of her win over Kanepi on a side court. I had gone there to see her opponent, but came away much more impressed by Makarova competitiveness. Here’s what I wrote about her in this column last week:
The 56th-ranked Makarova is all effort. Kanepi hits the heavier, more penetrating ball, but Makarova keeps it coming back with that extra bit of scrappy, cussed determination that won’t accept defeat unless there’s absolutely nothing she can do about it. That beats a heavier ball nine times out of 10.
Makarova did get nervous today, but she was just as cussed. This wasn’t a case of Serena giving the match away. Makarova returned her serve well—she got 70 percent of her returns in, and Williams won just 31 percent of points on her second serve. Serena may have been sluggish, but Makarova didn’t let her off the hook. Both her forehands and backhands penetrated, and none more so than the running backhand down the line she knocked off at deuce, while serving at 4-3 in the second set. Serena was threatening at that stage; if Makarova doesn’t put that ball an inch from the baseline, the comeback we were waiting for from Williams may have materialized after all.
“I won against Serena,” Makarova said with a grin in her press conference. “Which is amazing."
She said she felt comfortable from the start, believed she could win, was never overly nervous, and that she likes these courts and this atmosphere. It’s obvious: Makarova had her best career Slam result in Melbourne last year, when she upset Ivanovic and Petrova on her way to the fourth round. Asked about her low ranking, she said that she got into a funk at the end of last season, when she lost six straight first-rounders, but now it was a “new season, new feeling, new game.”
It may not have been until today, though, that Makarova was exposed to the vicious scrutiny of the media. Here's how the tough questioning began:
Q: Does your last name mean anything? Sounds a little bit like macaroni in Italian.
A: I know, but I don’t like it. When sometimes you are playing, the crowd, they start, Marcarena or macaroni, I don’t like it really, so . . .
Q: You don’t like macaroni or . . .
A: No! The Italian food, I really like. I don’t like how they call me sometimes.
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“I can say that my idol was Anastasia Myskina. I really love her game. She’s working with the Fed Cup now. I’m so happy sometimes when I’m also on the team and she’s happy to talk to me. That’s an amazing feeling.”
Makarova wasn’t as wide-eyed at the sight of her famous opponent today, and hopefully she won’t be when she faces either Maria Sharapova or Sabine Lisicki next. That’s all in the the future, though.
“Today, I don’t want to think about next match," Makarova said. "Just want to enjoy this moment.”
As for Serena, she says she’ll be back, and be better, and that she’s looking forward to a rematch. She even mentioned trying to enter a few more events this spring. For a second, she said, she considered Indian Wells. For a second. She might want to consider match play, though. The days when she could win majors with very little of it are fading. Illness or not, injury or not, Serena's coming up on two years without a Slam title. Rankings and smaller titles don't concern her, but that must.
This isn’t the end of Serena Williams winning at the big ones, by any means. In the future, though, when she comes out playing horribly in the middle rounds of a major, my first thought will no longer be, “She’ll make her come back eventually,” the way it always has been. Instead, I'll probably think: “Serena could lose this one.” That will be a new thought.
Watching Rafa Nadal churn his way through the claycourt season over the past few weeks, it seems nothing much has changed since his French Open triumph a year ago despite a lengthy injury layoff.
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