x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

The troubles of Serena Williams at the French Open

The world No 1 has only one title to her name at Roland Garros and endured her worst grand slam performance there 12 months ago, writes Ahmed Rizvi.

Serena Williams has only won the French Open title once, in 2002.
Serena Williams has only won the French Open title once, in 2002.

Over the past eight years, only two men have had their names engraved on the Coupe des Mousquetaires - Rafael Nadal got it done seven times and Roger Federer once.

In the same period on the women's side, there have been six different winners of the French Open women's singles title, six different champions in the past six years. And Serena Williams, the greatest champion of our times, is not one of them.

The 15-time grand slam winner has not made it beyond the quarter-finals on the red of clay of Roland Garros in six visits since 2003.

Her performance graph in Paris hit its nadir last year when she was knocked out in the first round by Virginie Razzano, ranked 111 in the world at the time.

That is Serena's only first round exit in 50 grand slam appearances and it turned out to be one of those hell-hath-no-fury kind of a moment. Stunned and scorned, the 31 year old has been cruel in her excessive mastery since, winning 67 of her 70 matches and titles at Wimbledon, the 2012 London Olympics and the US Open.

"It's like I gave her a big slap," Frenchwoman Razzano said last year. "I saw her at Wimbledon, and she gave me a very dark look. Then I saw her again here [at the US Open], and you know what? She's still bitter. Either she drops her eyes, or she looks at me, and the look basically says, 'I can't wait to play you again, and this time I will take my revenge'."

Serena's wish for a rematch with Razzano has not come true yet, but she has been taking out her vengeance on the rest of the tour since. The defeat brought forth the truculent pugilist in her.

"As much as I hate to lose, sometimes it's good for my game and my motivation," Serena said last year. "So I think for sure that loss helped me. I have never been so miserable after a loss."

In the months and years before that defeat, Serena had seemed a bit detracted. Motivation was at a low as the American, who made her first appearance on the pro tour as a 13 year old, found other distractions. A concerned Chris Evert, the former world No 1, was forced to write her a letter begging her to focus.

There were a few tragedies and health scares along the way as well. In March, 2011, Serena revealed she had been diagnosed with a life-threatening hematoma and pulmonary embolism. She had earlier missed the second-half of 2010 after stepping on broken glass at a restaurant in Munich.

"I really think a champion is defined not by their wins but by how they can recover when they fall," she said. "I have fallen several times. Each time I just get up and dust myself off and I pray, and I'm able to do better or I'm able to get back to the level that I want to be on."

And, as she starts her campaign at Roland Garros on a 24-match winning streak with four consecutive titles, Serena is certainly at the level she wants to be as she tries to add a second French Open title to the one she took in 2002.

In the three clay court titles she has won this year - Charleston, Madrid and Rome - Serena has dropped just two sets in 16 matches; her combined score for those three tournaments is 199-82 and in Rome and Madrid, she defeated the world No 2 and No 3 in straight sets, stretching her mastery over Maria Sharapova to 13-2 and improving her record against Victoria Azarenka to 12-2.

Those numbers make Serena the overwhelming favourite to win this year's French Open, but the 31 year old is remaining apprehensive on her chances.

"Last year, I was feeling excellent on clay but didn't do that great at Roland Garros," she said. "This year, I'm cautious, and I want to work hard and stay focused and win every point I play and not slack at all."

Serena's reserved approach is understandable. Last year, she had flown into Paris on a 17-match winning streak, but lost to Razzano. Her earlier defeats at Roland Garros have come against Sam Stosur, Svetlana Kuznetsova and Katarina Srebotnik, which suggests her biggest challengers might not be the Azarenkas and Sharapovas.

"The lady in the mirror is the ultimate opponent for me," Serena said in Rome. And the world No 1 will have to really watch out for her.

arizvi@thenational.ae

twitter Follow us @SprtNationalUAE