x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Serena Williams’ motivation still the main stumbling block for French Open success

The world No 1 prepares for her bid to win French Open for third time still looking add to her array of titles and success in the women's game.

Serena Williams has only won the French Open twice, in 2002 and last year. Christophe Ena / AP Photo
Serena Williams has only won the French Open twice, in 2002 and last year. Christophe Ena / AP Photo

Last year, as she departed for Paris from the Eternal City of Rome after another successful visit, Serena Williams was asked who she considered to be her biggest challenger.

“The lady in the mirror is the ultimate opponent for me,” she said.

That lady in the mirror has indeed been a formidable adversary, and an enigma. She seems to be of the shape-shifting breed, appearing in many different avatars through the years.

Some days, she has taken the form of a fashion diva, who cares little for sport and turns up on courts in black Lycra catsuits, white trench coats or boots. At other times, she appears as a wannabe hip-hop superstar, threatening to release an album titled Cray, Cray and My Gucci Glasses.

Last August, in a documentary entitled Venus and Serena, the younger Williams sister acknowledged the presence of these multiple personalities.

“Summer is my assistant who lives inside my body,” she said. “I remember Megan. I think she was a bad girl, who just liked to have a lot of fun. Haven’t seen her in a long time.”

And “Psycho Serena”? “I haven’t seen her, either, in a while.

“Laquanda is not allowed to come out. She’s on probation. She’s not nasty. She’s just real.”

Confused? Join the club, which includes Martina Navratilova, Chris Evert, Pam Shriver and virtually every other tennis luminary.

“I don’t see how acting and designing clothes can compare with the pride of being the best tennis player in the world,” Evert wrote to Serena in an open letter, through Tennis Magazine, in 2006.

“Your other accomplishments just can’t measure up to what you can do with a racket in your hand. Just remember you have an opportunity of the rarest kind – to be the greatest ever.”

“Serena has a gift, and she’s not using it,” Navratilova said in a 2006 interview. “She had the opportunity to be the greatest in history. Instead, she’ll be a supernova who burst on to the scene, and then she was gone.”

In recent years, Williams has made sure she will not go down in history as a supernova. Or rather, it was that diagnosis in early 2011, which revealed the presence of life-threatening blood clots in her lungs, which really awakened her.

Or perhaps it was that first-round loss to Virginie Razzano at the 2012 French Open, her first and only opening-round departure at a major.

Since that defeat, Williams has won four grand slam crowns and 15 other titles, including the 2012 Olympic gold. She has recaptured the world No 1 ranking and has lost only eight of 140 matches.

“I think she’s very appreciative of her good health now with what she went through and she is maturing as a person,” Billie Jean King said last year. “And you start to appreciate things in a different way as you grow.”

Williams has won 19 of her 60 career singles titles since that loss to Razzano, but can she really make up for lost time?

She has missed 11 majors since her first appearance in 1998 and played in 54; Roger Federer will be making his 58th consecutive grand slam tournament appearance since 2000.

To compare further, Federer has played 288 tournaments since 1998 and won 78, while Williams has 60 titles from 174 tournaments in the same period. The Swiss has played 1,172 matches over the past 17 years and won 951 (a winning percentage of 81); the American has played 766 matches and won 652 (winning percentage 85.02).

In her career, Williams has never played more matches in a season then she did in 2013 – 82 matches in 15 tournaments, reaching 14 finals and winning 11. In 2012, she played 62 matches and 13 tournaments, reached seven finals and won each of them.

Had she shown the same commitment over the previous decade, Williams likely would be closer to Steffi Graf’s Open-era record of 22 grand slam crowns and 107 WTA Tour singles titles.

Navratilova’s record 167 titles and Evert’s 157 would have probably not seemed so out of reach either.

Back in 2006, Navratilova had warned that by the time Williams “gets it together”, she may find “her head will be there, but her body won’t”. Till now, the body has not let her down very often, but for how long?

After defeating Angelique Kerber, Maria Sharapova and Li Na to win the Miami title last March, she was knocked out by world No 78 Jana Cepelova in the first round at Charleston a week later.

Williams, who will turn 33 in September, said she felt “dead” tired in Charleston.

In Madrid this month, a thigh injury forced her to pull out ahead of her quarter-final against Petra Kvitova. She managed to win Rome without being 100 per cent, but, as she starts the defence of her French Open crown, people are wondering which Williams will show up on Court Philippe Chatrier.

The choice seems to be between the one who loses to players such as Cepelova and Razzano, or the one who boasts a 53-2 record on clay since 2012.

The opinion among pundits is divided. “I think with Serena, it’s up to her,” Darren Cahill, who has coached Andre Agassi and Lleyton Hewitt, told ESPN.com. “That’s the great thing about it – she gets to choose. When she wants to play, she’s tough to beat.”

Nick Bollettieri, who has coached both Williams and Sharapova, had the same opinion. “I believe Serena is the best player in the history of women’s tennis,” he said.

“If she stays healthy and finds the desire to keep winning, that’s just what she’ll do.”

Pam Shriver, an ESPN analyst, does not believe Williams can win two in a row at Roland Garros and reckons she is “going to get upset along the way”.

With seven different winners lifting the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen over the past seven years, Shriver’s argument has substance.

So Frenchwoman Alize Lim, who meets the world No 1 in the first round, could be fancying her chances, and so would Williams’s possible second-round opponent Garbine Muguruza.

Sharapova will likely be waiting come the last eight and the Russian must also be confident she can finally break her run of 15 consecutive defeats against Williams – her last win was in 2004.

Sharapova would find further encouragement, though, in the fact that in Williams’s 12 appearances at Roland Garros, the American has lost five times in the quarter-final and progressed beyond that stage only three times.

So, while clay might not be her favourite surface and her age, and her aching bones, feature prominently in the debate, Williams starts as favourite to win her third French Open crown and 18th major title to join Navratilova and Evert on the all-time major winners’ list.

The only problem could be that lady in the mirror. If she provides an unhappy reflection, then Sharapova, Li Na, Ana Ivanovic, or Simona Halep could be posing with the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen two weeks from now.