RIO DE JANEIRO — The world’s most accomplished tennis player crashed out of the Olympics on Tuesday night for an improbable reason.
She experienced a rare crisis of confidence at the worst possible time.
Already down a set in her third-round singles match against 15th-seeded Elina Svitolina of Ukraine, Williams suddenly lost all ability to control her serve. Three times Williams squandered chances to take a 4-3 second-set lead with double faults. She then resorted to serving at two-thirds speed, yet not even that helped as she double-faulted a fourth and fifth time in the same game to hand a service break to Svitolina.
That gift was all Svitolina needed to close out the biggest upset in an Olympics rife with tennis surprises so far. Svitolina’s 6-4, 6-3 victory earned her a quarterfinal matchup with the Czech Republic’s Petra Kvitova later this week.
“I didn’t really think I could win until it was 40-30 and I finally won the match,” Svitolina said. “It was just an unreal feeling. It was such a relief for me because I didn’t expect until that moment that I could win. I think that helped me a lot to not expect a mistake from her and just stay focused.”
Svitolina’s victory was stunning because the Ukrainian hadn’t recently shown any signs she was capable of ousting a 22-time grand slam winner and reigning Olympic champ.
Though Svitolina is ranked 20th in the world, she has only advanced beyond the round of 16 in two of the 14 tournaments she’s played so far this year. Svitolina was 0-4 against Williams in her career, including a 6-1, 6-1 demolition at the French Open this past May.
Why did Williams suddenly lose all feel for her serve late in the second set? What caused her to spray typically routine groundstrokes for unforced errors throughout the match? Those questions are tough to answer because she chose not to speak with reporters after her loss. Williams instead released a brief post-match statement via the United States Olympic Committee.
“Obviously I’m disappointed,” Williams said. “She played really well and the better player today won. But I can’t wait for next time. I look forward to it.”
It’s highly likely there won’t be a next time for Williams at the Olympics. The three-time doubles gold medalist and 2012 Olympic singles champion will turn 35 in September. Returning to the 2020 Olympics is a long shot even for a champion who has accomplished things no female tennis player in her 30s ever has.
All Williams’ achievements made Svitolina cautious to count her out, even as the American was sailing backhands past the baseline, dumping forehands into the net and serving erratically at two-thirds her usual speed. Only after Williams’ final unforced error on match point did Svitolina allow herself to celebrate.
“It happens sometimes with her serve, but she can also do four aces in a row,” Svitolina said. “You need to expect the unexpected against her.”