Williams had just suffered her worst defeat at a grand slam and her worst defeat anywhere for five years. For 64 horrible minutes she slashed and flapped at shadows, her feet seemingly welded to the red clay, as Garbine Muguruza, the 20-year-old world No 35, thrashed her 6-2, 6-2.
Williams was furious. “Can we just have one more question? I’m really frustrated,” she warned.
“Obviously I’m super disappointed and it’s hard. I worked really hard. But, hey, maybe I can do better. I know for a fact I can work harder. I know for a fact I can play so much better than what I did today, so it’s a double‑edged sword. I didn’t play well, but I can play better. If I couldn’t play better I would be, I think, even more disappointed. But I know I can, so I know I have something to look forward to. I’m going to go home and work five times as hard to make sure I never lose again.”
Williams had met Muguruza once before, at the Australian Open last year. Then, she allowed the rookie just two games in a brief but brutal hiding.
At the time, Muguruza was paralysed by nerves – she was not used to playing the superstars on the big courts – but, even so, Williams saw talent in waiting. After yesterday’s encounter, the world No 1 took a few extra moments at the net to congratulate the woman who had just made her look like a chump and informed her that if she kept playing like that, she could win the tournament.
“I’m so happy she said that to me,” Muguruza gushed. “But I have to take it as a very fair play message of congratulations.
“I played her before and it was horrible because I was so nervous. I said: ‘Okay, this time I’m not going to think I’m playing against Serena. I’m going to do what I have to do.’ Before the match, I was thinking, I was sitting alone in the locker room, I said: ‘Okay, I have to be aggressive, I have to hit hard before she do it to me, because then I’m going to run so much’.”
Despite her 17 grand slam titles and her usual aura of the all-conquering heroine, it is not unknown for Williams to have duff days and, when she is off her game, she is truly awful. But Williams does not take defeat well and, when she claims that she will work to ensure she never loses again, she means it.
Two years ago, she came to Paris as the form player and lost in the first round to Virginie Razzano. Fuming and frustrated, she retreated to lick her wounds in private and then returned to win Wimbledon. That set her off on a remarkable run of success and, over the course of the following 18 months, she lost just five matches and won three of the next five grand slams.
Muguruza, though, has made her mark on the former champion. Born in Venezuela but now training in Spain, she started climbing the rankings and impressing her peers at the start of last year until an ankle injury in June cut her season short. This year, she won her first title in Hobart in January and has now caused the upset of the tournament in Paris.
“She plays really well, obviously,” Williams said. “I have actually never seen her play like this.”
She may see it again and soon – on a grass court somewhere near SW19.