On Wednesday, Open Court (CNN’s monthly tennis show which runs videos, news stories and features) published a story penned by Chris Murphy entitled ‘Down and out: The man who rescued Serena Williams.’ With a title like that, you know what you’re getting into – yet another piece of journalism that gives Patrick Mouratoglou too much credit for Serena Williams’ WTA dominance over the past 18 months.
There are just so many things wrong with this – not just this piece, but this entire narrative.
First, the piece itself. With his words, Murphy doesn’t portray himself as that knowledgeable about the last two years of Serena’s career. In his lead, he completely glosses over her pulmonary embolism and subsequent comeback in 2011. Instead, he chooses to use this blanket statement:
After an injury-blighted few seasons that saw her sink to 175 in the world rankings, Williams had hit one of the biggest troughs in her career.
‘Injury-blighted seasons’? Perhaps the understatement of the year.
Secondly, Serena wasn’t ranked 175 when she started working with Mouratoglou. She fell to that ranking when her Wimbledon points came off in 2011 – right after she began her comeback. She was technically on a 16-match winning streak coming into Roland Garros in 2012. She won Charleston and Madrid, as well as two matches in Fed Cup, before giving Li Na a walkover (not an official loss) in the semifinals in Rome. She came into Roland Garros ranked No. 5 and was the overwhelming favorite.
She had already gotten herself back in the top 5 before they were introduced. I wouldn’t necessarily call that ‘one of the biggest troughs in her career.’
Sure, her loss to Virginie Razzano in the first round was shocking, unprecedented and any other number of similar adjectives you’d like to call it. Apart from Roland Garros, her clay court season in 2012 was pretty immaculate. Against Razzano, she was in a dominating position and let it slip. These things happen.
Nonetheless, that match is what people remember, and that’s what gives birth to this story.
I’m not going to single out Chris Murphy for doing his job. He’s not the only person writing about this. As a result, I’d really like to know where the narrative came from in general. To say that she was languishing without big, strong Patrick guiding her is just ridiculous. She’s Serena Williams. She won a hell of a lot without him on her team, and she’d probably be doing the same without him there.
Oddly enough, it might actually be Serena herself who unknowingly contributes to it.
“For me to lose in Paris was really disappointing; I was really shattered. I didn’t leave my house for two days,” Serena told Open Court in this feature video. “I was just in a bad place, and it got darker and worse and worse.”
We all know about Serena’s tendency to over-exaggerate and even be a touch melodramatic. It seems as though her comments about that match and what transpired after it are always taken at face value. Should we really be expected to believe that a woman, who has come back successfully from multiple injuries; showed strength in overcoming the murder of her sister; survived said pulmonary embolism; and defied the odds in achieving success in general, had that much trouble moving on from losing one tennis match?
That leads me to the other issue I have with this piece: the use of the word ‘rescue.’ Would anyone ever say that Paul Annacone ‘rescued’ Roger Federer in bringing him back to No. 1 and to the Wimbledon title in 2012? Of course not. In what is now the twilight of his career, Federer would be appreciated for the champion that he is and how he found a way to make those things possible. Why can’t people say the same about Serena? She overcame adversity. Things like this are what the WTA’s ‘Strong is Beautiful’ campaign should really be about.
Mouratoglou is just a support figure for her both on (and off) the court, if you like to believe the gossip and rumors. It would be false to say that he hasn’t been a positive addition to team Williams, but that’s about it. Prior to joining her team, Mouratoglou and his team were more well-known for their failed coaching experiments; players including Laura Robson, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, Yanina Wickmayer and Grigor Dimitrov all suffered up-and-down results while working with the Mouratoglou academy.
What has he actually done for her game? It’s been said that she’s added more spin to her forehand under his tutelage, but close observation makes me think that has been slowly evolving for a while. It’s also been said that she’s improved her movement and footwork; she’s always had these things, but also had a tendency to get lazy. She’s a champion, and champions are always tinkering with and improving their games.
If you follow Patrick on Twitter (@pmouratoglou), you can tell how much he enjoys the publicity. He’s constantly sharing links to these stories and features written about his relationship with Serena as well as telling the world how #proud he is of her after every victory. You just don’t see other coaches publicly reveling this much in their charge’s success.
He was in the right place at the right time. Just because their partnership resulted from an (im)perfect storm, doesn’t mean he ‘rescued’ her from the precipice of falling into oblivion. She’s Serena Williams, and a player of her caliber can make any coach look good.