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Falling off the cliff?

The defeat of ill-prepared Serena at The Championships is hurting for her fans. The moot question is if the tennis Diva is fit enough to pursue her ambitious 24th Grand Slam title

Falling off the cliff?

Serena Williams failed to produce the magic of yesteryears and lost in the first round at The Championships. The three-set loss to Harmony Tan, from Paris, in a match spread over three hours at Wimbledon, was a reminder when you are playing after a long break, it gets very hard.

Serena, the proud owner of 23 Grand Slam singles titles, has been wanting to win the 24th desperately to equal the gigantic record of Margaret Court. Her match on Tuesday was certainly billed as high-profile in every which way. For a major part of the contest, the Black American showed fire and flair.

Maybe, Serena had miscalculated she could win matches without match practice, something so important. Tennis analysts, all past champions, feel Serena had the arsenal to compete at the highest level but in the physical sense, she has been finding it that much harder the last four years.

As Wimbledon celebrates its Centre Court centenary (1922 to 2022), everyone wanted a bit of emotional stuff from Serena. Between the two Williams sisters, they have produced razzle-dazzle tennis for over two decades and hogged the limelight at SW 19, the richest suburb in Southwest London.

Sport is beautiful. But sport can also be cruel, when you have not put in your best preparation for a Grand Slam. The world of tennis still remembers how when Serena won her last title at the Australian Open in 2017, it was huge. That was her 23rd Grand Slam title. It means, in five years, despite her best efforts, she has not been able to add one more title.

Few knew in 2017, when Serena was grinding out the opposition in the melting heat of Melbourne at the Australian Open, she was pregnant. Her love child was born a few months later, after which she had to take a long maternity break.

Serena returned. She had slogged on her fitness, worked on her movement and mobility, but somehow, she had lost the knack of closing out big matches. It's very hard to digest the fact the 40-year-old diva of tennis is now struggling to fire winners when needed.

Nobody dares say Serena does not put in effort. For, even after her agonising loss in 2021 at The Championships in the first round, her return in 2022 was high-profile. Her rankings were not the same as before and she needed a wild card to get into the draw.

If anything, it was Harmony who was intimidated when she saw the draw. To meet the queen of tennis in Round 1 was scary. Yet, the tennis churned out was reminiscent of the past. Winners from Serena came, not in a torrent but a trickle. And that is what brought her down, after being in a position to close out the match.

When legends land with a thud on terra firma, it's very painful. History and statistics are hard. And it can be harsh, as well. We have watched Serena in a serene state. Now in her fifth decade, she has started to resemble a pale shadow of herself. For someone who spends more time now in celebrity events and so on, she is still the centre of attraction.

After all, players like Harmony and Iga Swiatek may not get recognised by the common man in the streets of Leicester Square or Piccadilly in Central London, but Serena certainly does. She has been a global star whose appeal remains undiminished. Her ability to relate to several issues even not related to tennis marks her out as a supreme champion.

In a way, by emerging from the ghettos of Compton in the West Coast of the United States of America and then playing on public courts to now owning riches in billions of dollars, Serena's story has been one of rags to riches. She represents the Black Americans in a big way. She has shown that colour does not matter in emerging a champion. What matters is being a champion in every aspect. Whatever she has achieved, it has been with frank and bold efforts.

So, how does one want to remember Serena Williams? I, for one, would want to remember her potent winning groundstrokes, where her aggression would intimidate the opponent. Her body language, in the past, resembled that of a tiger, sorry, tigress, waiting for the kill.

Now, it seems like a thing of the past. Serena's efforts today are not sufficing. To be sure, professional tennis is very hard. Those who play the sport day in and day out are the ones who are most sharp. As a wild card, Serena had taken the Trans-Atlantic flight to London more on hype than hope. To have just played a couple of doubles matches was not the preparation which was going to help her win seven matches, which is what it takes to seal a Grand Slam title.

After her match, Serena was questioned on her future. As expected, she was non-committal. She knows that the US Open in New York very soon will be tempting to compete in. As one who loves the high energy of the Big Apple, she may want to take a shot again. The fear is, she will come short. Again.

When Serena split with her long-time coach Patrick Mouratoglou, earlier in 2022, the alarm bells rang. The genial coach had played an important role in shaping her career, though, in the beginning, it was her Dad Richard Williams who had trained his daughters, Venus and Serena.

In sport, retirement is a personal decision. The best athletes have struggled to get it right when to call it a day. Andre Agassi made a mockery of his farewell tour, where he was playing without purpose and passion. However, his wife, Steffi Graf, the blonde German, retired on a high. Very gracefully.

Talk of American tennis, Pete Sampras, the master of serve-and-volley, hung up his racquet at the right time. And now we have Roger Federer, battling several medical issues, trying to return. His comeback will be risky as living life on the tennis courts is not easy. There are youngsters waiting to show their hunger and wares. All this risk-taking does not make sense. On the contrary, it hurts the legacy which Federer built.

Serena faces the same dilemma. She knows she is past prime. She knows she is unable to devote the same time as before, what with a family to manage. She had dealt with several medical issues, which included pulmonary embolism a few years ago. Her recovery after giving birth to Alexis Olympia Ohanian, was eventful.

For all those who marvel at the way Rafael Nadal has preserved himself and the way Novak Djokovic has kept working on his body, Serena needs to take a call on her future. Maybe in cricket, you can be an MS Dhoni, where he plays only the Indian Premier League (IPL) every year and no other cricket.

In tennis, you cannot get wild cards and enter Grand Slams, hoping the opponents will be kind. Serena's problems are much more than just lack of training and match practice. Her comeback after maternity leave was phenomenal. Sadly, despite coming close to winning Grand Slam titles after that, she has now hit the nadir. They say, experience matters. Yes, it does. But then, one also has to accept the fact that when the body has been battered and bruised for decades, the body joints are not the same as before.

The heart and mind may be willing for one last hurrah. In Serena's case, winning the 24th Grand Slam title to equal Margaret Court. She missed it a few times, very closely. The die-hard fans of Serena do not want to see her lose in early rounds.

It hurts.

When you have built a legacy which will be remembered for a lifetime, the last chapter in the book cannot be one of regret and agony. Come on Serena, you have been much more than a champion. Nobody wants to see a limping tigress on the tennis court.

Views expressed are personal

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