The Williams Sisters Go Down in Paris

Serena and Venus Williams lost at the French Open today. One of those losses was surprising but the other was pretty shocking.

Serena Williams is the leading vote getter in our poll asking who will win the French Open this year. Curiously, Jelena Jankovic is second and Ana Ivanovic third. Didn’t Ana get to the final last year? Weren’t people watching? Now Serena is gone and so is her sister Venus.

Serena lost to Katarina Srebotnik. Srebotnik doesn’t have much of a serve and she doesn’t have enough power to play toe to toe with Serena, but she has an all court game and is also the number four ranked doubles player in the world. And she’s a very smart cookie.

When Serena did make her way to the net, Srebotnik hit behind her or passed her. Srebotnik purposely hit drop shots to get Serena moving forward because she knew that Serena’s footwork suffers on clay. After exchanging early breaks, Serena was serving at 3-3 when she sent Srebotnik scrambling with a huge forehand. Serena stumbled instead of sliding into Srebotnik’s response and that gave Srebotnik enough time to run around her forehand and unload a winner.

That’s a good example of the importance of footwork on the slippery stuff. Serena should have won that point and she should have won the match but she kept slipping up, so to speak. Serena lost that game to go down a break and in the next game, she got caught moving too slowly back to the baseline. Meanwhile, Srebotnik pulled off a fantastic lunge volley on a dipping ball that was tailing away from her – did I say that she’s the number four doubles player in the world? – and Serena got caught out of position on the baseline yet again to go down 3-5 in the set.

Can Serena win the French Open these days? When she won her French Open title in 2002, she played Mary Pierce and Jennifer Capriati in the quarterfinals and semifinals, and her sister Venus in the final. That was three rounds of power tennis players she plowed through but now it’s a different story. Since 2002, she’s lost to Justine Henin twice and last year, Henin knocked her out of the last three slams of the year. Henin is, uh, I mean, was, the quintessential all court player with just enough power to handle Serena.

But Justine’s not here anymore so who can compete with Serena, the only one left who’s actually won this tournament? Serena is 1-0 over Ivanovic though they’ve never played on clay and she’s 3-3 with Jankovic and they’ve never played on clay either. Serena is 5-2 over Maria Sharapova and 4-1 over Svetlana Kuznetsova with a win over both players in their only clay court match.

The answer is that only Serena can beat herself and she did a pretty good job of it today. I’m trying to figure out whether her footwork has worsened or whether she was just having a bad day. She’s bigger than she used to be and that does make it harder to change directions on slippery surfaces. She hasn’t gone past the quarterfinals here since 2003 and though she did win a clay court title in Charleston earlier this year, it was on that green stuff, not the red stuff, and it was her first clay title since her French Open title.

So yeah, I’m gonna say that Serena’s movement is worse on clay than it used to be and that doesn’t bode well for a title here.

Srebotnik was serving for the first set at 5-4 when, again, Serena had her on the run. Again she lost the point when she sent a crucial backhand volley long because she didn’t get her feet set. Srebotnik meanwhile was coming up with more great shots. She went almost to her knees to dig out a Serena forehand, and I don’t know if I’ve ever seen this before, she got off such a good shot from that position that she followed it to the net and finished the point off with a volley.

Serena’s footwork threw everything else off. She hit two easy volleys into the net and then hit a drop shot on break point that put her down 4-5 in the second set. Srebotnik won the match 6-4, 6-4, and Serena looked a bit shocked at the postmatch media session. She looked down at her lap in between questions and her voice faltered.

I think Serena’s got a pretty good shot at the hard court slam titles but time may be running out for the clay version.

I’d actually forgotten that Venus was here. She’s had health problems since last year – anemia is the closest explanation I’ve heard, and I thought she’d skipped Paris. She’s averaging about one tournament per month this year, though she did play Rome as a runup to the French Open, so we can hardly expect much out of her with that playing schedule.

And she’s only gone as far as the semifinals in one tournament, a Tier II event in Bangalore which was underpopulated because everyone else was taking a rest week before Indian Wells. Today, she went out to Flavia Pennetta, a clay court specialist who’s never been past the third round here and has never won a Tier I title. Third round is a bit early for Venus to go out but the only time she went past the quarterfinals was 2002 when she lost to her sister in the final.

The loss wasn’t surprising but Venus’ passiveness was. The match went well past 9 pm and Bud Collins, who was sitting courtside, said he was having trouble seeing. Venus had lost the first set 5-7 and was down a break in the second set but never said a word or shot a dirty look at the chair umpire. When both players returned to the court for Pennetta to serve at 4-3, the crowd cheered because they were surprised to find out that they’d see more tennis.

No word from Venus yet about her state of mind but she looked like she just wanted it all to be over.

Improbably enough, Robby Ginepri is the only U.S. player left in the draw after taking out Igor Andreev. Ginepri now shares a coach with Roger Federer in Jose Higueras. Federer can only hope that Higueras is as helpful to his clay court game as he has been to Ginepri’s.