PARIS - Until approximately 6:30 P.M. today, the first Tuesday of the 2012 French Open was widely being described as the dullest in memory at a Grand Slam. Right around that time, Serena Williams, up a set and 5-1 in the second-set tiebreaker against 29-year-old, 111th-ranked Virginie Razzano, missed a shot. She hit a backhand into the net. She hit another one long. Then she watched a ball from her opponent float onto the baseline, and she didn’t swing.
For the first time in, well, maybe for the first time, Williams looked anxious to the point where you wondered if she was going to get another ball in the court. She almost didn’t. Another missed backhand was followed by a wild forehand wide. Serena’s eyes were wide as she struggled to do what she’s done in all 46 of her previous first-round Grand Slam matches—close. Razzano’s eyes were also wide, wide with possibility. She had stayed with a below-par Williams for most of two sets, and refused to go away when everyone expected her to, at the end of the second. Now this native of France, who has been ranked as high as No. 16, but who had lost in the first round in five of the last six French Opens, saw a chance. She took it, coming forward at set point and forcing one more error from a panicked Williams. The dullest day had just taken a turn into uncharted territory.
If we hadn’t seen Serena so anxious in a long time, we also hadn’t seen her react so negatively to a lost set in . . . I don’t know how long. Fighting back tears at the changeover wasn’t completely unexpected, but seeing Serena start the third by launching ball after ball beyond the baseline took us deeper into the wilds. Serena was at a loss to explain it afterward.
“I just started making a lot of errors,” she said, again fighting hard, and succeeding, to keep her composure in the interview room. “I mean, the whole match, I just didn’t play at all the way I've been practicing. . . . I don’t know how many errors I ended up making”—it was 47—“but I haven’t been playing like that in the past.”
I’m going to assume that by “the past,” Serena meant the recent past, as in during her streak of good clay-court play in Charleston and Madrid. I had begun to wonder, as she fell apart in the tiebreaker and kept falling, seemingly without a net, through the first five games of the third set, whether her run of wins hadn’t saddled Serena with just a little extra pressure to start this major. We know she expects the most from herself, but it's easy to see why she might have expected even more this time around, when she’s been so focused and so good. A few weeks ago, when Serena was asked whether she would be happy with the bronze at the Olympics in London, she had responded with a single, hilariously dismissive word: “Please.” (Translation: “Uh, no.”)
So when Williams began to see it slip away at the end of the second, it likely came as more of a shock, and more of a disappointment. Note that when Serena started the match poorly today, she became outwardly angry, something she hadn’t done more than once or twice during this clay season. Williams had never lost a first-round match in 14 years of playing the majors, but that doesn’t mean they’re not nerve-wracking. Today Serena, who admitted to being nervous, finally couldn’t close one out.
“It didn’t work out,” Serena said, trying to fall back on the typical phrases of “that’s the way it goes” resignation. But they wouldn’t cut it this time. “I just wasn’t—" then she stopped herself and blurted, “I made so many errors, which isn’t the game that I’ve been playing in the past.”
Finally, Serena returned to where she had been originally going with her answer. “You know, that’s it,” she concluded. “That’s life.”
And that is it, that’s life, and that’s life at 30. Even Serena can’t beat the aging process. She started badly, made too many mistakes, let a lead slip, and while she fought fiercely at the end, as we knew she would, she might have played with more margin in the final game, when she could see that Razzano was cramping. The Frenchwoman made it an historic evening, but Williams’ presence and stubbornness at the end helped make the final game one the most dramatic we've ever seen. Cramps, hindrances, match points, fans banging on chairs, the old guard of the French Tennis Federation on the edge of their seats, defiance from Serena, grit from Razzano: You had the sense—it’s a sense that you don’t have anywhere else in tennis—that, literally, anything could happen inside Chatrier.
Anything did, of course, and Razzano made it happen. The veteran lost her fiancé to brain cancer at this time last year, and she said she had felt cursed by tough draws here. But she also felt like she had a chance. She watched YouTube videos of Williams to prepare, and she remembered that Serena had been in the stands when she had beaten her sister Venus in 2007, so she knew that Serena would take this match seriously. It was also the first time they had played, so Razzano had no losing memories against her.
What we’ll remember, and what began to seem unprecedented as it developed, was Razzano’s final, 12-deuce, eight-match-point, five-break-point service game. This was one of the great upsets of the Open era, and it took a remarkably resilient performance to get it done. Razzano, with the match seemingly hers, was suddenly hobbled by cramps. She was given a second, and unfair, point penalty for an audible hindrance when she let out a brief cry of pain—even Serena shook her head at that one, and the collected members of the FFT appeared ready to jump on court to pull umpire Eva Asderaki down from her chair. Razzano also had to face down Serena Williams, who began to shriek with determination halfway through the game, and who stopped missing once her back was all the way to the wall.
Razzano grunted with effort herself, and never stopped going after her shots or keeping them deep. On one deuce point, she lunged and slapped back a seemingly impossible forehand that caught Williams off guard. She hit an ace to save one break point. And after watching match point after match slip through her fingers, she never hesitated or got out of her routine.
Afterward, a glowing Razzano said it was “the most beautiful match of my life,” that it was an “honor” to beat Serena, and that it was a “big enjoy” for her.
The match and the moment was a big enjoy for many of the rest of us. By the end, two men in front of me had their caps pulled over their eyes—they weren’t particular fans of either player, but they still couldn’t look as Razzano tossed the ball to serve at match point. The crowd beat time on the seats and did a rolling disco-style chant. Oracene Williams urged her daughter on, as Serena dropped her racquet in exasperation and was booed. Any shot that looked like it had a chance to be a winner brought a loud exclamation from the crowd—talk about hindrances. And it ended with a perfect dramatic triangle. Razzano joyful over a ball mark that she knew was out; Serena walking to the net to inspect; and the nemesis of both players, Eva Asderaki, who had been nearly whistled out of the stadium, confirming the end with a point of her index finger.
The chant kept going rolling around the stadium as Razzano sat with her head in her hands. “I wanted to give myself the chance of winning it,” she said later, claiming that out of the bad of the last year she had made something good. “I went as far as I could, and I think I won it as a champion.”
Part riot, part parade, part venture in uncharted territory, this was a match where a champion for an evening held off a champion for all time: Virginie Razzano couldn't go any farther than she did tonight. She gave us an image of tennis persistence that will endure.
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