|▲ Sabine Lisicki, nicknamed Boom Boom for her serve, rallied from a 3-1 deficit in the third set in defeating Serena Williams. By CHRISTOPHER CLAREY Published: July 1, 2013|
WIMBLEDON, England — After an early struggle and the loss of the first set Monday, Serena Williams kicked into the gear that has been too much for any opponent to handle since March.
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The upset of Serena Williams by Sabine Lisicki on Monday was the latest reminder that no superstar is safe at the All England Club this summer.
Despite Sabine Lisicki’s powerful serve and unmistakable gift for grass-court tennis, Williams reeled off game after game — nine in a row — to take command of this tricky fourth-round match.
“She seemed to be on cruise control,” the former women’s No. 1 Tracy Austin said. And then, in a surprise that should no longer be a surprise, this Wimbledon resumed being weird and wondrous.
With Williams serving at 3-1, 40-15 in the final set, Lisicki ended a baseline rally with a forehand net-cord winner, then won three more points in a row to break Williams’ serve and momentum. Instead of then succumbing to the Centre Court pressure, Lisicki proceeded to hit enough spots and shots with conviction to bring a halt to the top-seeded Williams’s 34-match winning streak, too.
“Obviously, I went into the match feeling that I could win,” said Lisicki, the No. 23 seed.
Obviously, and why not? Lisicki’s 6-2, 1-6, 6-4 upset was the latest and greatest reminder that no superstar is safe at the All England Club this summer, which is well on its way to being the strangest Grand Slam since the 1997 French Open, when 66th-ranked Gustavo Kuerten won the men’s title and 9th-seeded Iva Majoli won her only major championship. But the 31-year-old Williams, who has won 16 Grand Slam singles titles, was quite rightly the overwhelming favorite here after winning five tournaments in a row, including the French Open, before arriving on the grass that suits her intimidating serve and quick-strike tennis as well as a Pimms suits the end of a Wimbledon day’s play.
“She’s not a machine,” her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, said. “The law of streaks is that they end some time. We knew it was going to end. We just didn’t know when. It was today, and it’s not the end of the world, just a loss, and it reminds us this is a game, and that nobody is unbeatable.”
Lisicki, a powerfully built 23-year-old German is nicknamed Boom Boom for her serve (Boris Becker, the three-time Wimbledon men’s champion from Germany, had the same sobriquet). But she has yet to get past the semifinals here, although she is now the London bookmakers’ favorite to win Wimbledon. Unlike Steve Darcis, who upset Rafael Nadal in the first round; Sergiy Stakhovsky, who beat Roger Federer in the second; and Michelle Larcher de Brito, who downed Maria Sharapova; Lisicki is a well-established threat.
She beat Sharapova here last year on Centre Court on her way to the quarterfinals and now has a bright and shiny 17-4 record in singles at Wimbledon compared with a 16-15 record at the three other Grand Slam tournaments.
“It is not a shock,” Williams said of her defeat. “She plays really good on grass. She has a massive, massive serve. So going in there, you have to know that it’s definitely not going to be an easy match, playing her at Wimbledon, especially on Centre Court. It’s definitely not a shock. I just need to do better.”
Lisicki, who trains in Bradenton, Fla, has long been viewed as a potential top-5 player but has been held back by injuries, erratic performances and mental combustability. “I think everybody who knows me knows that I’m an emotional person,” she said, after crying with joy and release in her post-match television interview with the BBC.
Lisicki, even in times of duress, stayed upbeat on Monday. She said her affinity for Wimbledon was not only a matter of the grass suiting her big serve and the low bounce playing into her strike zone on her aggressive ground strokes.
“I think there are a few things, but also that I feel very comfortable here,” she said. “Having the house, having the whole team being in the house, being able to cook, having a great atmosphere.”
Wimbledon, with most players staying in private accommodations in the village, is indeed a Grand Slam apart, and yet this was a Wimbledon apart for Williams, too.
This was her first Wimbledon without her older sister, doubles partner and touchstone Venus, who has won five singles titles of her own here but withdrew from the tournament with a back injury. (Serena Williams said she stayed — as usual — in the smaller bedroom of their rented Wimbledon home anyway).
Unusually, Williams’s father and longtime primary coach, Richard, was also absent as was her mother, Oracene Price.
Serena Williams dismissed the absences as a possible explanation for Monday’s performance.
But others believed it all added up: the support-team shift, the controversy over her comments in a Rolling Stone article before the tournament in which she initially placed some of the blame on the Steubenville rape victim before apologizing. There was also the 40th anniversary celebration for the WTA Tour in Wimbledon Village on Sunday afternoon in which she had a prominent role as the present No. 1.
“Serena was out of her usual routine here,” said Pam Shriver, the former American star who was also at the event. “No Venus, no Mom; no Dad. Sharapova stirring it up after the Rolling Stone stir-up. Plus yesterday was not the normal day before a match afternoon, though I believe Serena needed to be there yesterday and did well.”
But above all, Williams’s problem Monday was Lisicki, whose average first-serve speed of 109 miles per hour was exactly the same as Williams. This match bore a certain resemblance to her quarterfinal at the French Open, when she faced Svetlana Kuznetsova.
In both matches, Williams sometimes looked tense, overwrought and off balance. But against Kuznetsova, Williams was able to raise the volume, punch through the tension and close out the victory. Against Lisicki, she seemed more muted, even intermittently passive in critical phases of the final set.
“For me, they were the same kind of days,” Mouratoglou said. “She went through and after that she played great until the end of the tournament in Paris. So probably if she would have found a way to win today, she would have probably won the tournament, and we wouldn’t be asking these questions.”
Until Monday, she had won 16 straight singles matches at the All England Club, and with that 3-1, 40-15 lead against Lisicki in the third set, it appeared that Williams was set to make it 17.
Instead, there were three consecutive breaks of serve. Williams had a chance to regain control when Lisicki fell behind, 0-40, on her serve at 3-4. But she saved the next three break points to get to 4-4, then broke Williams for the third time in the set.
Lisicki erased the final break point of the match with her 10th ace and then — staying aggressive — closed out her victory with a short forehand winner that left her flat on her stomach on the grass where Williams was bounding with joy after last year’s final.
There will be no repeat for Williams. But then, at this stage of this particular Wimbledon, should that really come as a surprise?