The Loop

The book is out on Serena Williams: She's too slow

June 03, 2019
2019 French Open - Day Seven

Jean Catuffe

I hope you'll notice that the headline of this piece isn't "Serena Williams Is Done." I've been down that road before, and it didn't end well. I don't want to endure that kind of abuse again, and also, I do legitimately believe that Serena could win another grand slam before her career ends, adding to her already ridiculous total of 23 and tying Margaret Court at the very top of the list.

Stephen A. Smith voice: HOWEVER!

The scouting report is in on the greatest women's player to ever step foot on a tennis court. In a loss to unranked fellow American Sofia Kenin on Saturday at the French Open, Serena wasn't just defeated—she was outclassed. It may be that Kenin played the match of her life, but the truth is that she was a superior player for nearly two hours, and the 6-2, 7-5 victory only got close in the second set because Kenin understandably tensed up when she realized she was on the verge of beating a legend. Even then, she recovered her nerve and finished the job.

So how did the 20-year-old American, who has won just once on the WTA Tour and is currently ranked near her career best at no. 35, take down Serena in relatively easy fashion? With bold, aggressive play, of course, but most importantly, she just moved her opponent relentlessly around the court. She peppered the G.O.A.T. with drop shots in the first set, and even when Serena reached them, she was late enough that she couldn't produce a winner, and Kenin would easily pass her with the next shot. At other times, the young American smartly kept Williams on the move in baseline rallies, running her back and forth until the veteran made a fatigue error or failed to get her racket on reachable balls.

To put it bluntly, Serena can't least not like she used to. As I wrote in the tweet you'll see below, it seems like she's lost speed and quickness, but it's indisputable that she's lost reaction time:

As you see, sometimes she's reacting slowly to serves, and other times she can't seem to get moving in time to reach hard groundstrokes, even when she guesses right. The delayed reaction leads to clean winners from Kenin, but it also leads to uncharacteristically weak strokes even when Serena manages to get there late.

It's hard to say exactly why this is happening. Serena's 38, she had a kid, and she hasn't played as much this season. Clay is naturally going to be her weakest surface at this stage, and a combination of all those factors plays a role. Still, her results since returning have been pretty darn good by mortal standards: she's reached two grand slam finals, and made the quarters of a third. But every loss she's suffered, whether it's against Angelique Kerber or Naomi Osaka or Sofia Kenin, ends up looking the same: She meets an opponent who can hit hard, at sharp angles, and keep her running without getting blown away by her still formidable power.
Keep Serena on the move, and she's vulnerable in a way that she never was earlier in her career—that's the biggest obstacle between her and a record-tying 24th slam.

The Broken Sports Institution of the Week: The Spelling Bee

On some level, it's kinda hilarious that the spelling bee had eight—EIGHT!—co-champions, and I take Coleman Bentley's point that if it triggered a bunch of boomers, we all win. And yet, it is a fundamental fact, irrespective of your generational affiliation, that having eight spelling bee winners is a stupid, outrageous travesty.

I am a spelling bee aficionado who once wrote an actual feature after attending the bee, and I could spell my way around a few hard words back in my day. Nothing special on a grand scale, but if you were a speller in upstate New York in the late '90s, and you saw me on the street? You got the hell out of my way, baby. So I know of what I speak: Every spelling bee must have one, or at the absolute most two, winners. If there's a long, brutal duel between two 12-year-olds that lasts at least an hour, I'm okay with a noble draw at the end, when they're both emotionally and physically exhausted. That's some Rocky vs. Apollo Creed action, minus the blood (unless it's a really good bee).

But eight winners? You know what eight winners is the same as? Zero winners. I mean, those eight kids should be proud in theory, but the rest of their lives, when they tell the story, they'll either have to go into a long explanation about how there was a weird format in 2019 and seven other people also won, or they'll have to lie. Both options suck.

The reason this hasn't happened before is threefold. First, there were written tests that served as tiebreakers, if necessary, which weren't used this year. Second, the spellers just keep getting better. Third, per some spelling experts, Scripps-Howard could have used much harder words.
The second-biggest spelling bee in America is the South Asian Spelling Bee, and they always determine a winner without much of an issue even though the spellers are just as good, which means that this is not an insoluble problem. ESPN and Scripps-Howard need to figure this out, because frankly, I can't take another year of eight winners. It'd be like stopping the NBA season after the first round of the playoffs. We need a true champion! Spelling is America's most important sport, and it's time we start treating it as such.

Mysterious and Embarrassing Attendance Problem of the Week: The French Open

Here's a picture from moments before the first point of Simona Halep's match on Saturday at the French Open. Before you look, let me remind you that Halep is one of the most famous players in the world, the defending champion, and this happened on a pleasant weekend afternoon:


Why on earth is that attendance at Roland-Garros so meager? Every match I've watched, especially on the main courts, has featured wide expanses of empty seats, including a Nadal match. Either the French have suddenly become extremely indifferent to tennis, Roland-Garros is pricing them out of the expensive seats, or...the stadiums are too ugly now with their eerie, semi-futuristic white motif. Any of those explanations might make sense, but it's disheartening to see one of my favorite tournaments of the year being treated like it's a Miami Marlins home game against the Padres in mid-August.

Bad TV Sport of the Week: Soccer

I watched the Champions League final between Liverpool and Tottenham. Did you? If you did, you'll agree with me that it the entire game was changed by a probably bad, definitely dumb penalty call that happened literally thirty seconds into the match, and then the rest of the 90 minutes was boring. Give or take a few details, this describes every match I've ever watched in my nearly two-decade history of giving soccer a chance. Folks, the results are in: It's a bad sport to watch on TV. And yes, I'm putting this so far down in this week's superlatives, and keeping it so short, because I'm a coward who is scared of angry soccer fans. But between you and me, I'm right—professional soccer is bad.

Best Extremely Tall NBA Star in a Comically Small Car: Giannis, at Disney

He's not in the NBA Finals, but he's still first in my heart:

Funniest Sports Headline of the Week That I Refuse to Click On Because It's Already Perfect:

(For what it's worth, without reading the story or knowing any details beyond the headline, I side with the cyclist.)