Serena Williams was flustered when she got called for taking too much time between points, flung away her racquet after letting a lead slip away and finished surprisingly meekly in a 5-7, 7-6 (5), 6-1 loss to Maria Sakkari at the Western & Southern Open on Tuesday night.
This was Williams' fifth match since professional tennis resumed amid the coronavirus pandemic after a hiatus of nearly six months - and all five have gone three sets. She is 3-2 in that stretch.
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The result against No. 13 seed Sakkari, and particularly the way the match ended, was hardly promising for Williams as the U.S. Open's start approaches next week.
The Western & Southern Open is usually held in Ohio but was moved to the U.S. Open's site in Flushing Meadows this year to make for a two-event, no-spectator 'bubble' during the pandemic.
Williams was seemingly in control early, serving for the first set at 5-3, 30-0, when things began to unravel.
She missed two backhands in a row, then put a forehand into the net to set up a break point, and walked over to the stand holding her towel at the back of the court (the ball people normally handle towels for players, but not during COVID-19).
That's when chair umpire Aurelie Tourte called a time violation. On the following point, Williams sailed a forehand long to get broken.
It had been more than 4 years since @serenawilliams lost a match after winning the 1st set (Kuznetsova at ‘16 Miami) — It’s now happened 2 weeks in a row.— Brett Haber (@BrettHaber) August 26, 2020
At the ensuing changeover, the 23-time Grand Slam champion argued with Tourte, saying: “I mean, I'm getting my own towels. That's not fair. You should tell me on the sidelines next time if I need to play faster. Believe me, I will. ... You didn't even give me a warning.”
Williams wanted a soft warning.— José Morgado (@josemorgado) August 26, 2020
"Next time tell me before. I'm usually a super fast player." pic.twitter.com/2AlCVtsA22
Serena complaining to the chair umpire as if she's the only player who has to get her own towel 🤣— Will Boucek (@WillBoucek) August 26, 2020
Its the 3rd rd...
Drama magnet Serena Williams is at it again, this time lecturing the umpire on how to do her job.— Kenneth M. Walsh (@kenneth212) August 26, 2020
Frustrated Williams toppled by Sakkari
While Williams eventually did grab that set, she again frittered away a 5-3 lead in the second, plus a 4-1 edge in the tiebreaker.
When she sat after the second set, the 38-year-old American tossed her racqueet over her shoulder the way an office worker might flip a crumpled piece of paper toward a trash can.
Williams came out flat in the third set, as if she'd rather be anywhere else.
She double-faulted four times in the second game, including on Sakkari's eighth break chance, to make it 2-0 and that was pretty much that.
Asked about what had happened, Williams said she was in the midst of a difficult stretch, which was being compounded by the hectic schedule.
“I don’t know to be honest. It’s hard to play the way I play out there and to stay positive,” she said.
“And to play nine hours in one week is too much.
“I don’t usually play like that. It’s new for me.
"I literally should have won that match. There was no excuse.
“It was tough, but I had so many opportunities to win. I have to figure that one out — how to start winning those matches again."