Strange, sad exit for Serena


LONDON -- There was no speculating about the tears that Serena Williams wiped away on her way off Court 1 on Tuesday, a strange and sad exit that wraps up three-quarters of a nightmarish Grand Slam season for the game's top-ranked, but shaky, player.

What to make of Williams' withdrawal from her second-round doubles match with a "viral illness" that left the five-time Wimbledon single champion scarily disoriented, unable to pick up the ball or toss it, much less serve it over the net?

We'll probably never know anything more than that, given her mysteriousness in the past when it comes to weird occurrences. Immediately, you had to flash back to 2010, when we heard that while celebrating her fourth Wimbledon title at a dinner in Germany, she cut both of her feet, reportedly on broken glass, while leaving the restaurant.

Much speculation swirled around that, partially because of the secrecy from her camp. This time, both Serena and Venus issued statements, Serena saying, "I am heartbroken I'm not able to continue in the tournament. I thought I could rally this morning because I really wanted to compete, but this bug just got the best of me."

What we're left with beyond the gossip, however, is the concrete reality of Williams' fourth-round loss in singles at the Australian Open, her second-round exit from the French and her third-round ouster here, to Alize Cornet.

As she turns 33 in September, every injury and illness is harder to get over, every loss harder to explain.

"Right now I don't really know what I did wrong," Williams said Saturday after losing to  Cornet, the No. 25 seed,  1-6, 6-3, 6-4. "Usually I do. Usually I know I did this, this and that."

Her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, acknowledges that as a general rule, age eventually gets to even the greatest champions.

"You're probably right," he said on the BBC, "but a general rule is a general rule, and I don't think it applies to Serena. Serena is Serena, and there is only one Serena. If I felt that way, I don't think I'd say it, but I don't feel that way at all. It's just a difficult moment we have to pass through, and she will be back at the top."

But can Williams simply go along -- as Roger Federer has done -- two years between Grand Slam wins (0 for his past 7) and still keep going, occasionally threatening but enduring the eulogies being written after every loss?

With every lingering injury, every loss to a Garbine Muguruza, it is easier to believe that Williams equaling or surpassing the 18-Grand Slam title mark of Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert in the Open era (Steffi Graf has 22) might not happen.

With every Eugenie Bouchard and Simona Halep who simply flares her nostrils, digs in and wins big matches, completely unintimidated by the Williamses and Sharapovas, it is not such a leap to visualize the next generation in women's tennis taking over.

"No question the feeling in the locker room is that [Williams is] vulnerable, she's beatable," said Lindsay Davenport, also on BBC. "It's all about getting her serve back ... because once it's a baseline rally, it's not so much in Serena's favor.

"The general consensus in the locker room is they have a chance now, and it wasn't like that a few years ago."

Proud champion that she is, I have a hard time picturing Williams enduring many more years like this one. The highs are great, but the lows? They seem to drain her. And the dramas like the unrepentant tirade toward the chair umpire at the US Open a few years back ("You're ugly on the inside") that stole Sam Stosur's championship moment, they drain us.

It would be great to see Williams bounce back from the first three Grand Slams and come back strong this summer and at the US Open. She promised it would happen after the French, that she was going to go home and "work five times as hard to make sure I never lose again."

But obviously, it's not that easy. It never is.