Serena Williams typically uses the Miami Open, which she considers her hometown tournament, as a launching pad for another dominant season.
But she joined the cohort of flameouts in Key Biscayne when she lost 6-7 (3-7), 6-1, 6-2 to Svetlana Kuznetsova on Monday.
It’s March Madness at the Miami Open.
No. 1-ranked Williams, the eight-time champion who was aiming to win her fourth in a row, was unrecognizable in defeat. No fist pumps, screams or glares. Just shrugs, sighs and rolled eyes.
Her body language spoke in subdued tones: Something is missing this afternoon, and I don’t know how to find it.
As the match changed course in the second set, it was No. 15 seed Kuznetsova the crafty defender who dug in and fought while the passive Williams became an onlooker.
Williams lost eight consecutive games before breaking Kuznetsova to provide a flicker of suspense when she was down 1-3. But in the next game, she lost her advantage on two limp groundstrokes, then double-faulted to fall behind 1-4. Her serve was erratic, her feet sluggish. Kuznetsova moved the ball around, and Williams treated it like a penny dropped in the gutter.
Williams’ purple reign at the Tennis Center at Crandon Park came to an end on the same day world No. 2s Andy Murray and Agnieszka Radwanska were upset on Stadium Court. Roger Federer withdrew with a stomach virus Friday, and a dizzy Rafael Nadal retired from his match Saturday.
Williams has not won a tournament since her triumph at Cincinnati in August. Since her attempt at a calendar Grand Slam ended in the shocking semifinals of the U.S. Open, she has lost in the finals of the Australian Open two months ago and the BNP Paribas Open last week and now in the fourth round here, prompting murmurs of “What’s wrong with Serena?”
In an anesthetized manner, Williams said Miami’s hot, humid weather didn’t affect her because she’s used to it. She said she wasn’t feeling extra pressure to defend her title. She didn’t cite any injury problems. She didn’t have an explanation for her 55 unforced errors, compared with 18 for Kuznetsova.
But when asked why she wasn’t moving with much verve or snap, she got a little testy.
“I don’t think it’s appropriate to criticize my movement right now,” she said. “I did the best that I could. I can’t win every match. The players come out and play me like they’ve never played before in their lives. I have to be 300 percent every day. So that’s pretty hard to live up to, the expectations I put on myself.”
At this stage in a career that will likely establish her as the best ever in her sport, Williams must resolve the conflict between expectations and motivation in every match she plays. That sort of focus requires an extraordinary, unending stream of energy.
Sometimes, the tank is empty.
Williams, 34, has won 21 Grand Slams, one shy of Steffi Graf and three shy of Margaret Court’s record. She is so much better than everyone else that anything less than a championship won’t suffice.
After Williams’ demoralizing loss to Roberta Vinci at the U.S. Open that prevented her perfect four-Slam season followed by a long layoff, the assumption was that Williams would return for the new year ready to resume her march toward history.
But she’s already lost three matches in 2016, to Angelique Kerber, Victoria Azarenka and Kuznetsova — matching her total number of losses from 2015, when she went 53-3. She labored through her first two matches at the Miami Open, losing 20 games, and she hadn’t lost this early here since 2000, when she was 18 and beaten by Jennifer Capriati.
So Williams, who spent part of her youth in Palm Beach Gardens, wasn’t able to get her mojo back at the tournament she used to attend as a fan with her father and sister Venus.
But Williams isn’t panicking and her opponents aren’t writing her off.
“I knew she was not on her top game, but neither was I,” Kuznetsova said. “She struggled a little bit probably because she lost Australian Open, but she’s still No. 1 and still plays great. I don’t see much to be depressed about.”
Williams failed to win in Australia, Indian Wells and Miami, but there’s still Paris, Wimbledon and New York. When she cranks her motivation as high as her expectations, she’ll be back on top.