With a 22nd Grand Slam title as elusive as ever, world No.1 Serena Williams’ misery was palpable as she left Roland-Garros.
Win or lose in a Grand Slam, the immediate post-match formalities are the same – speak into this microphone and tell us how you feel.
Twenty-one times Serena Williams has undertaken that task wrapped in the joy of victory, but Roland-Garros 2016 has set a new, unwanted mark in her career – this is the first time she has ever been forced to undertake the task after suffering a second successive Grand Slam final defeat. In Australia she had to watch Angelique Kerber lift the trophy, and here it was Garbine Muguruza.
Williams turns 35 in September, and that 22nd Slam title to equal Steffi Graf’s haul is as far out of reach as ever… maybe even a little further.
On court, Serena is polished in these public moments of private agony. Having walked around the net to embrace her usurper, she delivered a few moments of gracious thanks into the proffered microphone. Her visible expression was all smiles, but her voice broke as she thanked her coaching team, especially “mon ami Patrick” – Mouratoglou, of course, the coaching consultant who did so much to revitalise her career. And she told the crowd: “Tu es toujours dans mon coeur” – you are always in my heart – with that touching use of the more personal “tu” over the formal “vous”.
There were a few more court formalities, very few of which involve – how else to phrase it? – the loser. Serena lingered as briefly as she was politely able. Her understandable instinct was to be away from the court, from inquisitive eyes. But she had yet to undertake her media obligations. She could have ducked them entirely – it would have incurred a fine, but nothing she cannot afford. Instead she headed at once to the press conference room to get the job done as soon as possible. Having taken more than two hours to arrive there after her quarter-final victory on Thursday evening, this time she darted in there so quickly that the world’s media was still scrambling to get inside the room by the time she was already taking questions.
Those questions took various forms. But fundamentally they followed that terrible, obligatory pattern – speak into this microphone and tell us how you feel.
“I haven’t had a lot of time to think about what made the difference in this match,” said Serena, her voice now glacially composed. “I want to dissect and see what I can learn, and what can I do to get better from it. That’s the only way to keep improving.
“I know she won the first set by one point, which just goes to show you have to play the big points well. I think she did that.”
She described her own game as having “just so many holes”, insisting she could both have served and returned better. And she declined to blame the adductor injury she picked up halfway through the week, or the demands created by the rain-hit schedule.
“I’m not one to ever make excuses. I have played four or five matches in a row lots of times. I just didn’t do what I needed to do. I didn’t play the game I needed to play to win and she did. Adductor or not, she played to win. That’s what she did.
“I want to play the best, and I kind of gear up for that. It was a great challenge. She’s definitely hitting hard. She just goes for broke on every shot and it works for her. She has a bright future, obviously. She knows how to play on the big stage and clearly she knows how to win Grand Slams.”
For all her careful composure, there was no mistaking her bewilderment, especially recalling the point that clinched the match, when Muguruza’s dazzling lob landed millimetre-perfect on the baseline. Yes, agreed Serena when asked, it was one of the best match points ever played against her.
“For sure – I thought that ball was going out,” she said, and then added painfully: “But it didn’t.”
And what of that new, unwanted career benchmark of losing successive Grand Slam finals for the first time? “In Australia, Kerber made 16 errors in three sets, so what do you do in that situation? Today Garbine played unbelievable. The only thing I can do is just keep trying.”
With that, she was gone, exiting the press conference room even as some reporters were still arriving. Enough with the questions and the microphones and the how-do-you-feels. Even as she left, somewhere all too near within the same centre court complex, Garbine Muguruza had not yet left Philippe-Chatrier Court, happy to answer the photographers’ requests as she held the Coupe Suzanne-Lenglen, experiencing the joy that only a champion knows.