In the moments immediately following her stunningly early exit from the 2012 French Open, as her eyes welled with tears and she bemoaned how she’s ”been through so much in my life,” Serena Williams could not possibly find anything positive to take from the experience.
How could she?
For the first — and, so far, only — time in her career, Williams lost her opening match at a Grand Slam tournament. Not merely that, but a woman many considered the favorite to leave with the title lost to a woman ranked 111th and with 20 first-round losses in 46 previous major championships. And, surely adding to her disappointment, Williams lost after having been two points from victory against France’s Virginie Razzano.
When the 31-year-old American returns to Court Philippe Chatrier to play Anna Tatishvili on Sunday — the schedule for Day 1 of the 2013 French Open also features Williams’ older sister, 30th-seeded Venus, and 17-time Grand Slam champion Roger Federer — she will do so with a different understanding of what went wrong 12 months ago, and even a bit of appreciation for the disappointing result.
”Sometimes I think, ‘Should I be happy that I lost last year?’ You never know what can happen in your career and why things happen,” said Williams, who is ranked and seeded No. 1 in singles and got a wild card Saturday to play doubles with her sister. ”So it’s been great for me just realizing that every match counts.”
At that point she paused, perhaps hearing her own words and what they implied.
”I have always realized that,” Williams continued, ”but also realizing what I need to do to get better and to stay on top and to be, you know, the best tennis player that I can be.”
Rare is the professional athlete, no matter the sport, who readily acknowledges taking victory for granted against a supposedly inferior opponent. That, though, is what it sounded like Williams was doing.
There are, to be sure, other explanations for what she has done on the court since that defeat: good health, which her mother, Oracene Price, calls the biggest single contributor to Williams’ recent success; working with a new coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, who directed her training session Saturday on Court Suzanne Lenglen; and what Williams sums up as ”really just staying relaxed and calm” during matches.
But it certainly can’t hurt to take every match seriously, including against players such as Tatishvili, who is 2-10 this year, 0-2 at the French Open for her career and never been ranked better than 50th.
”You just have to always … be ready to play,” Williams said, ”and expect anything.”
So now she is back at the French Open, which she won in 2002, and is playing as well as, or perhaps even better than, ever. Williams is on a 24-match winning streak, part of a 36-2 record with a tour-leading five titles this season. Since that loss to Razzano, Williams is 67-3, including championships at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open that boosted her career haul to 15 Grand Slam titles.
With three more, Williams would match Hall of Fame members Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert at 18.
Evert thinks Williams will eventually surpass that total, and continue climbing up the list that Margaret Smith Court leads with 24 major championships, followed by Steffi Graf’s 22, and Helen Wills Moody’s 19.
”It’s still a reachable goal for her to win 22 and match Steffi,” Evert said. ”If she plays another two, three, four years healthy, she can break all those records.”
Evert, who will analyze French Open matches on TV for ESPN2, took her assessment of Williams a step further.
”With her serve and her athleticism, her power, her court mobility — I just think when she’s on, she’s the greatest player we’ve ever seen. Ever,” Evert said. ”Now, whether her record is the greatest remains to be seen, because she hasn’t retired yet. But I think she is really the greatest player, (and) I have seen Martina and Steffi at their best.”
It’s that serve that might very well be Williams’ greatest advantage over her contemporaries.
She leads the tour this season in most significant serving categories: 227 aces, nearly 80 more than the next-highest count; 85.4 percent of service games won; 75.7 percent of first-serve points won; 68.4 percent of break points saved.
Williams still seems to bring out her most compelling tennis when across the net from the game’s other top women: She is a combined 25-4 for her career against current No. 2 Maria Sharapova, the French Open’s defending champion, and No. 3 Victoria Azarenka.
That includes a 6-1, 6-4 victory over Sharapova in Madrid, and a 6-1, 6-3 victory over Azarenka in Rome — both in finals, both this month, and both on the same red clay used in Paris.
”She’s been really consistent, playing on a high level. Because, you know, we all know the level she can play at,” Azarenka said. ”It wasn’t maybe as consistent as it is now, so I think that’s maybe the big difference.”
Now the question becomes whether Williams can carry that over to Roland Garros, where the tough footing and shot-slowing surface give her far more trouble than the grass or hard courts used at other Grand Slam tournaments. While she’s won Wimbledon and the Australian Open five times apiece, and the US Open four times, Williams is stuck on one French Open title.
That’s also her only appearance in the final. She hasn’t even made it to the semifinals in France since the year after that, a decade ago.
”It’s long overdue, her second French Open win,” Evert said. ”It’s mind-boggling to me that she hasn’t been in the final since 2002.”