No country for number ones: Serena Williams upset by Elina Svitolina

AP Photo/Charles Krupa
AP Photo/Charles Krupa

In her last six sets played against Serena Williams, Elina Svitolina had won just 11 games. With a weak serve, shaky forehand and even shakier nerves, it was completely reasonable to see their Monday night meeting in the third round of the Rio Olympics as little more than a bye for the top seeded American and reigning gold medalist.

Instead, the exodus of top seeds was completed (with the not-yet-started mixed doubles getting an asterisk) with Svitolina stunning not just the tennis world, but the sports world at large on the Olympic stage, by winning 6-4, 6-3. The favorites in each event, Williams, the Williams sisters in doubles, Novak Djokovic and the team of Nicolas Mahut/Pierre-Hugues Herbert amassed a total of two victories, both by Serena in singles.

Anyone who watches Williams on a regular basis is practically immune to her falling behind early, or even losing a set. Sometimes she starts slow, content to win here and there without reaching into the tank for her best tennis, and other times it’s clear her opponent will run out of gas or feel the moment and flinch at an inopportune time, especially players without big weapons such as Svitolina.

In fact, Serena had done just that on Wednesday against semi-rival Alize Cornet, who had taken the last couple meetings, including a (ahem) dramatic match at Wimbledon two years ago. Cornet had stormed back from a deficit to reach set point, but Williams fended them off and won a tight tiebreaker, followed by a more comfortable second set.

But there were no rabbits to be pulled out of the hat on this day. Williams got it back to level in the second from 3-1 down, yet just as quickly as she evened it up, she trailed again after hitting an astounding five double faults in one game, including three in a row that turned game point into a break of serve.

Svitolina held at love for 5-3 and didn’t have to face the nerves of serving out the biggest win of her life, as the Ukranian broke for the fifth time to seal the victory.

After not entering mixed doubles, Williams officially leaves Rio 2-2 and without a medal in what could be her final Olympics. Nagging injuries have followed her this year as she approaches 35 years old and her coach Patrick Mouratoglou has informally petitioned a special exception be made for her to lighten her schedule even further to allow her to stretch her career out. None of this is to suggest she’s done (she’s made all three major finals this year, after all), just that this was more likely than not her final Olympic match.

Having withdrawn from Cincinnati already, it remains to be seen her if any shoulder issues impact her entrance into the U.S. Open.

As for Svitolina, the 21-year-old next plays Petra Kvitova in a wide open top half of the draw.

Why is it wide open? Because, as predicted in this space, the Garbine Muguruza/Venus Williams turned into a free-for-all. Williams lost in a round one marathon match, while Muguruza got smoked 6-1, 6-1 by Monica Puig despite looking dominant in her opening matches. Puig and Laura Siegemund are the survivors in that quarter, with the winner making the semifinals and the medal rounds.

Muguruza’s shocking loss was just part of a dismal day for Spain. To go along with Pau Gasol’s missed clutch free throws to fall to 0-2 in men’s basketball, David Ferrer failed to convert match point in a loss to journeyman Evgeny Donskoy and Carla Suarez Navarro saw a quality singles run ended in three sets by Madison Keys. In doubles, Ferrer and Roberto Bautista Agut lost in the quarterfinals to Americans Jack Sock and Stevie Johnson, though Muguruza and Suarez Navarro managed to survive a their doubles match.

Salvaging the day for Spain was Rafael Nadal, who turned in another encouraging performance, coasting to a win over veteran Andreas Seppi. He returned hours later with partner Marc Lopez, together playing an excellent match against Austrians Oliver Marach and Alexander Peya to reach the doubles semifinals.

The flip side of that coin for Nadal? He has three, count them, three matches to play on Wednesday as mixed doubles gets underway. Nadal and Fognini are the only players (men or women) still alive in singles to enter the mixed (see the draw below), and Fognini saw his men’s doubles run with Seppi end on Tuesday, losing to Canadians Dan Nestor and Vasek Pospisil. (EDIT: Forgot Johanna Konta, who entered mixed while still in singles.)

Tennis news

A flood of headlines came in over the last couple days.

— After being eliminated in doubles, Novak Djokovic said his next tournament will be the U.S. Open, meaning he’s out of Cincinnati, the one Masters 1000 missing from his collection. He’ll surely use the time off to recover from possible shoulder and hand issues.

— That also meant Djokovic wouldn’t play mixed doubles, confirmed with the draw on Tuesday. One player who is sticking around: Venus Williams, entered with Rajeev Ram. Teams who didn’t make the rankings cut: Ana Ivanovic/Nenad Zimonjic (Serbia), Andy Murray/Heather Watson (Great Britain) and Genie Bouchard/Pospisil (Canada). Murray won silver in London with Laura Robson.

Medal predictions: Muguruza/Nadal for gold, Mladenovic/Herbert for silver, Mirza/Bopanna for bronze:


(draw via Wikipedia)

— Tomas Berdych announced the addition of former player Goran Ivanisevic to his coaching team. Berdych recently fired Dani Vallverdu after over a year together, while Ivanisevic had split with fellow Croat Marin Cilic a couple weeks ago.

— Speaking of Mirza, her and Martina Hingis quickly took the WTA by storm, and are gone just as quickly. After hitting a rough patch, “Santina” are through, as Hingis will play New York with American Coco Vandeweghe, and Mirza with Barbora Strycova. Hingis and Mirza won 14 titles together in just 18 months, including three straight majors (2015 Wimbledon and U.S. Open, 2016 Australian Open, the first women’s doubles Slams of Mirza’s impressive career) and five Premier Mandatory/5s.

— Finally, mercurial Frenchman Benoit Paire was reprimanded by his federation for unknown conduct issues. It’s also unclear how long the punishment will last. Playing essentially without a country, Paire within match point of beating fellow hothead Fabio Fognini, who won a deciding tiebreaker.

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