It’s become the mantra of playing against Serena Williams, the pre-emptive shoulder-shrug: “I’ve got nothing to lose.”
And then, predictably, they lose.
But nobody would have predicted this.
So long, Serena.
For the first time since 2009, there will be no Ms Williams, S., in Toronto for Sunday’s final of the Rogers Cup, a tour-stop she’s all but owned.
This is a slam-bam shocker, a rift cracking open, zig-zagging across the tennis landscape.
Teenager Belinda Bencic — often gauche, occasionally petulant, not infrequent inflictor of gross bodily harm against tennis racquets — knocked the veteran out of the tournament, out of town, and clear off her perch of invincibility.
With fan-boy-in-chief and longtime family friend Drake looking on morosely, SNAP went Williams’ 14-match win streak in T.O., 3-6, 7-5, 6-4, a confrontation that careered from a zip-blah 33-minute first set to a jaw-dropping comeback second set, to a break-riddled and double-fault littered, yet gutsy third set. Williams reached down in that final set for a fistful of her signature resilience, the no-quit dame we saw at the French Open, while her adversary clung tenaciously to an unsuspected depth of nerve.
Bencic, all of 18 years old, was relentless and merciless, even as she squandered what had seemed like too many opportunities to put Williams away in a third set which the Miss Swiss 2.0 had led 4-0, including a second game where the American had been schneided to love.
“I have nothing to lose,” Bencic had said the previous night, after dumping quarter-final opponent Ana Ivanovic, merely the fifth seed.
Williams, of course, was seeded first here — No. 1 in the world rankings, like forever.
Yet Bencic matched the 33-year-old for power and put immense pressure on Williams’ first serve, which went suddenly and unusually awry, disastrous actually. In the end, not even 16 signature aces could alter the swing of things.
“I cannot believe it now,” a teary and clearly gobsmacked Bencic said, while still on the court and with fireworks exploding overhead.
Turning to her gum-chewing, burst-his-buttons coach-dad: “Thank you for everything. Also to my mom. She is home.”
This as Williams was packing up her dolls and dishes, also the racquet she too had earlier destroyed in a fit of pique, and marching off the court with a wave — index finger extended, as if to remind she’s still the One, still No. 1 — to the crowd.
That audience first pulled for the underdog, the largely unheralded yet hard-charging Bencic from the nation of cuckoo clocks, chocolate, and tennis colossi, and then, as the outcome loomed, returned their affections to Williams. Because nobody likes to see a champion humbled. And there were several passages in this match when the upstart did precisely that to her elder by 15 years.
“Today was not my day,” Williams stated bluntly afterwards. “I think I played really crappy today. I’ll try to be politically correct. And I don’t think you’ll disagree.
“I played like an amateur, to be honest.”
Harsh. But not incorrect, certainly by her own standards, that level of unsurpassed excellence which many had reckoned would bring Williams a fourth Rogers Cup title, en route to the U.S. Open next month and all-but-assumed completion of a calendar Grand Slam — ownership of all four major championships in the same year.
“I was just really struggling with my serve. Everything was off, my toss was off.”
She graciously gave full credit to Bencic — this was only the teen’s second tour title — who she’d earlier this week described as the future of women’s tennis. She didn’t use the heavy tape on her right hand either — sprained fingers, suffered in her quarter-final win over Roberta Vinci — as an excuse. “I can play with swollen fingers. I don’t think it should take away from anybody’s win.”
Serena lifted her head up — unbowed, of course — to heap further praise on the girl who’d vanquished her. “I was proud of her. She did a really good job.”
Bencic’s own head was spinning. “I always told myself, it’s Serena Williams. I’m not going to expect she’s going to hand to me the match. I expect that’s she’s going to put up a great fight.’’
Up or down, hardly ever the latter, Williams remains an unstoppable — if, yes, beatable — force who still defies time and injury and wear, un-waning.
Looking goddess fabulous in the pages of The New Yorker fall fashion issue, whether poured into a curve-hugging sheath or flashing lithe in full frontal splits — thighs that could crack walnuts — or barely clad in maillot with cutout midriff revealing washboard abs. Designer chic, from the tennis fashionista diva (in every age phase of her career) who, with sister Venus, gave us clacking cornrow beads, black lace, rhinestone tiaras and knee-high sneaker boots.
Straight outta Compton. Except — not really. That’s the legend. The reality: Transplanted to the broken-glass littered concrete courts in Compton from the middle-class comfort of Long Beach, California, because dad Richard believed that rough environment would toughen up his girls, daughters conceived to launch a focused assault against the white, rich, privileged tennis establishment.
Well, awesomeness has its privileges too. Among them, an aura of the unconquerable: She who can’t be beaten.
Which probably hasn’t been so great for the sport, where once there had been a group in the top 10 who could always contend, mano-a-mano against Williams. Justine Henin was one of them. “When I was playing, I had the feeling that you were in the last 16 and really everyone could win the tournament. It was a great generation.’’
Now it’s over and over again Serena Williams vs. The World — or . . . fill in the finals blank.
But on this Sunday, Serena Williams’ name will be missing from the proceedings, as Bencic squares off against Romania’s Simona Halep, winner of the other semi yesterday.
Henin, formally inducted into the Rogers Cup Hall of Fame on the weekend, had a decade-plus rivalry with Williams, in another era. She remains in awe of the woman but never in thrall. Today’s women, she suggested, are de facto cowed, cowering across the net from Williams.
“I wish the girls can be more consistent and believe that they can beat Serena, because some players proved in the past that it is possible. I think they don’t believe in it enough. When you want to beat Serena, you need to be at your best all the time. First, you have to believe that you can do it.”
Bencic believed, even if she kept saying she couldn’t believe it.
Funny, in retrospect, that after Halep’s 6-4, 6-4 triumph over Italy’s Sara Errani, much of the press conference questioning focused on her presumed showdown with Williams 24 hours later. No one game more than a passing mention to Bencic, who’d already sent two of the top five seeds packing.
“I just want to believe that I have a chance,” Halep had said. “But I go without pressure. I have nothing to lose, just playing against No. 1 in the world.”
Make that No. 20 in the world.
No. 1 has left the building.