It wasn’t a week ago that the sports world was wondering if Serena Williams would drop a set to anyone on the way to her sixth Wimbledon singles title. Now, she’s lost a match, and a crazy fortnight that had already seen Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Maria Sharapova bow out in early rounds is without its biggest and most dominating name.
Sabine Lisicki knocked Williams out, 6–4, 1–6, 6–4 in Wimbledon’s Round of 16, leaving fans a simple question: without Serena, is the rest of the women’s tournament worth watching?
It may be more worth watching than ever. American Sloane Stephens, who knocked Serena out of the Australian Open in March, China’s Na Li, and Lisicki are all interesting players. Stephens has already been tagged as the next great American player, Serena’s heir to the throne. Li became the first and only Asian woman to win a Grand Slam final at the 2011 French Open. Lisicki has been on the cusp at Wimbledon before, reaching a quarterfinal in 2009 and the semis in 2011. Beating Williams could be the breakthrough she needs to become a major champion eight years after she turned professional.
And a non-Williams winner may be a blessing in disguise for a game that’s been so dominated by Serena that her play is draining tension out of the sport. When it seems inevitable that she’ll be lifting a cup at the end of every tournament, it’s hard to get exciting about the matchups between other players along the way, no matter how dynamic and exciting the play may be. And there are times where it seems that Serena’s overwhelming skills have actually meant she got less credit than she deserves, as Grantland’s Louisa Thomas wrote after her routine dispatching of Sharapova in the French Open final three weeks ago:
Serena has no rival. It’s a truism by now. After the match, the response was satisfied but dull. Everyone acknowledged Serena’s greatness and her dominance, but the stories had been half-written in advance. What else was there to say? The contrast with what had happened the day before, when Djokovic played Nadal, was striking. Then, there had been urgency, e-mails and tweets and texts telling people to turn on the TV and watch. This happens three or four times a year: Two of the top four men will play five sets, and Americans — not just casual fans, but people who watch all the time — will suddenly discover tennis as if for the first time. They’ll see something they expect, and they’ll still be surprised.
That didn’t happen when Nadal played David Ferrer, all due respect to Ferrer. And it didn’t happen when Serena played Maria, all due respect to Sharapova. That’s the danger. I wonder if Serena’s greatness, for all the press it gets, is actually taken for granted. It’s not really tested, debated, scrutinized, or comparable, except to players who are fading or gone. Since it’s a foregone conclusion, there seems to be less of a general public sense that something’s at stake. Women’s tennis has lots of competitive, compelling characters. But even on the rare occasions when Serena loses, the gulf between her and those other players remains wide.
It’s not a secret that women’s tennis is at a cyclical low point compared to the men’s game, but there are still quality players in every draw who haven’t attracted attention because Williams steals every show. She’s been so good that she has almost forced us to forget that anyone else exists, and in a sport that thrives on rivalries, she’s dispatched of every potential rival with an otherworldly ease. The flip-side of that is that even her absence becomes the major story. A Wimbledon win by potential rival Sloane Stephens will still feel odd because we didn’t get the anticipated Australian Open rematch. A Lisicki win still wouldn’t overtake her defeat of Williams as the biggest match of the tournament.
That isn’t how it should be, but it’s how it is. When Serena’s there, we wonder why anyone is even playing, so much so that NBC drew only a 1.8 overnight rating for the French Open final. When she’s not, we wonder whether it’s worth watching, a doubt that showed up in the 1.7 rating NBC drew for the French Open final in 2011, when Williams exited in the first round. If the women’s game is in a lull, it’s paradoxically because Serena is too good for it to be exciting. The bright side is that Serena’s absence may allow for the emergence of a potential rival, be it Stephens, Lisicki, or someone else, that could make the U.S. Open and the future of women’s tennis that much more compelling.