INDIAN WELLS, Calif. — It was going perfectly. For Serena Williams, who won the first three games leading up to her match against two-time Grand Slam winner Garbine Muguruza.
For the BNP Paribas Open, because names such as Serena — and Roger Federer who played, and won, the preceding match on Stadium Court One at Indian Wells — pack the arenas.
So quickly everything changed on Sunday. Muguruza won a game. Then another. And another, six in a row to take set; and after a trainer checked out Williams, Muguruza won another game — and the third-round match, 6-1, 1-0, because Serena was forced to retire.
The official reason was “viral illness,” and in a rare response in women’s tennis where information is protected with secrecy befitting the Chinese government, Serena herself provided a statement.
“Before the match I did not feel great,” said Williams, “and then it just got worse with every second; extreme dizziness and extreme fatigue.
“By the score, it might have looked like I started well, but I was not feeling at all well physically.”
Serena, 37, has never been free of medical problems. She severed a tendon in her right foot stepping on a broken glass after winning Wimbledon in 2010. She developed a pulmonary embolism after giving birth to daughter Alexis in 2017.
Since returning to competitive tennis in March 2018, Williams, who often had been No. 1 in the rankings, played her way back to 10th but was unable to add to her total of total of 23 singles victories, one behind the record held by Margaret Court.
Muguruza, who now has a 3-3 overall record against Serena — and is the only person to have beaten both Serena and older sister Venus in a final — said she didn’t sense anything was wrong with Williams until the end of the first set.
“She was calling the trainer,” said Muguruza. And, like that, the match was called off. There’s no backup, no substitution.
To fill the gap, the tournament moved a men’s doubles match from another court, but the fans began to leave. Adrian Mannarino-Gael Monfils vs. Mackenzie McDonald didn’t have the same appeal as Serena-Muguruza.
Williams said she will focus on getting well and preparing for the next tournament on the schedule, in two weeks in Miami.
It has been a tumultuous few months for Serena. Or is that a redundancy? She reached the final at Wimbledon, losing to a better prepared Angelique Kerber, not bad after the layoff and return. But after advancing to the U.S. Open final in September against Naomi Osaka, Serena was upset by the calls of the chair umpire and lost her poise and the match.
Osaka was almost overlooked in winning that title, just as Muguruza may be in this result. Muguruza didn’t win as much as Serena lost.
But she seems capable of handling disrespect, unintentional or not.
A Venezuelan who perfected her tennis after moving to Spain and now spends as much time as possible in southern California — primarily Hermosa Beach — the 25-year-old Muguruza relishes a challenge.
She won the 2016 French and 2017 Wimbledon and said she likes playing the Williams sisters. “I think they are the best,” explained Muguruza, “even though I believe I can win every time.”
She won this time for sure.
“I am excited,” she said. “I think ‘excited’ is the word. Playing against them, it’s going to be a good match. It’s every time difficult. I always have a battle, but I believe in myself to be able to win.”
Not that it matters, but Williams began the match slugging her well-known huge serve. When it got to 3-0, you felt sorry for Muguruza. It turns out the sympathy should have been reserved for Williams.
“She started well,” affirmed Muguruza, “with her serve, with her shots; very dominating. I had to adapt a little bit my position in the court by the way I was hitting, and it took me a few games to do it. I felt more comfortable to be able to release my tennis.”
Against a lady who, unfortunately, felt more and more uncomfortable. A sad ending for a tennis match, and for Serena.