Momentum shifts in tennis are common, often slight, and always tenuous. Good tennis players capitalize on these tiny shifts—an unlucky bounce, an untimely double fault, a net cord. Great players, though, force the change themselves. That’s what Serena Williams did in her second-round French Open match against Australian Ash Barty.
Williams started the match playing tight, error-riddled tennis. At the end of the first set, which she lost 3-6, Williams had racked up 12 unforced errors and only three winners, and failed to earn any break points. The first game of the second set was even worse. Barty hit a winner, Williams dumped a swinging volley into the net, hit a backhand into the net, and then swatted a forehand into the net, to lose the game at love. It was one of single worst games of tennis I have ever seen Williams play.
Disappointing, I thought, but after all, it was only her second Grand Slam match since returning from giving birth to her daughter. And she had won her first-round match against Krystyna Pliskova. Maybe she’ll be ready for Wimbledon, I figured.
Williams, though, clearly wasn’t thinking about Wimbledon, and in the second game of the second set she morphed into a different player. After a huge backhand return winner, Williams let out a scream that sounded like equal parts celebration and frustration. Three points later, she strung together a rally that set her up with a put-away volley and gave her a break point. Another big yell. She converted the break, and it was as if she had flipped a switch. Williams went on to win the next three games and the set, 6-3.
In the third set, her footwork was faster, she was serving better, and hitting for the lines. Barty stayed sharp, but Williams took the set 6-4.
So what changed? How did she manage to turn herself, and the match, around?
“I just said I gotta be better, I gotta fight harder,” Williams said in her post-match interview. “I didn’t want to go out like this.”