The End of Serena Williams

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She just lost in the first round of the French Open. Is her career over? And if so, who will be the next dominant women's tennis player?

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Every week, our panel of sports fans discusses a topic of the moment. For today's conversation, Patrick Hruby (writer, ESPN and The Atlantic), Jake Simpson (writer, The Atlantic), and Hampton Stevens (writer, ESPN and The Atlantic), discuss Williams' future.


Everyone,

Serena Williams has never lost a first-round match at a Grand Slam tournament. Not on the tricky clay of Roland Garros. Not on the skittish grass of Wimbledon. Not in sunbaked Melbourne, where half the tour is still rounding into early-season form; not in pressure-packed New York, where even the greatest competitors sometimes melt down. Serena has been many things—swimsuit pinup; fashion designer; home shopping network pitchwoman; reality show star; maybe the best (and hardest-hitting) women's tennis player of all time—but she has never, ever been a major opening match loser.

Until now.

It was the result heard 'round the tennis world: down goes Serena. Down goes Serena. Three sets and out, a French Open loser to 111th-ranked Virginie Razzano. More perplexing still, Serena lost despite leading 5-1 in a second-set tiebreaker and coming within two points of victory nine times, both of which are the tennis equivalent of: a) blowing a 20-point fourth quarter lead in the NBA playoffs; b) staggering, but not KO'ing, your boxing opponent on nearly a dozen occasions, and then losing the fight on points.

The loss left Serena—who typically responds to clunkers with a signature mix of imperial confidence and blithe indifference—in tears. It also raised the question: Is the greatest player of last decade kaput as a dominant force, an oft-overwhelming favorite to win every tournament she enters?

Serena is 30, a generation removed from many of her peers. She has suffered a series of physical setbacks—including two foot operations and frightening blood clots—and the shocking, heartbreaking murder of her oldest sister. To this point in her (admittedly still incredible) career, she hasn't demonstrated the sort of all-consuming focus that helped Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras rage against the dying of the light. Meanwhile, the talent and depth on the WTA Tour gets better all the time.

All that said, I still think she's the player to beat.

Serena's power remains first class. She owns the top serve in women's tennis. Her opponents are hitting harder than ever; thing is, Serena likes pace. Her walkabouts from the week-in, week-out grind of the tournament calendar may provoke ire from fans and sponsors, but likely have saved her from permanent burnout. Above all, she remains a ferocious competitor, a player who really, really hates to lose.

As such, I don't see one Slam in Serena's future. I see many. Likely starting with Wimbledon.

Hampton, what's your take? Are you holding or shorting Serena stock?

–Patrick

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Sports Roundtable

Patrick Hruby, Jake Simpson, and Hampton Stevens 

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