It’s not as though Serena Jameka Williams has cruised through most of the 20 — yes, twenty — major tournaments she has now conquered.
Winning a major is almost always a hard thing to do. (Rafael Nadal at the 2008 French Open and a few other select individuals could offer exceptions to the rule.) Serena, of course, has authored a number of amazing comebacks in her career. Consider the 2003 Australian Open semifinals, when she erased a 1-5 third-set deficit to beat Kim Clijsters, 7-5, and win the championship a few days later against big sister Venus Williams. Recall, too, the remarkable fightback from a one-set deficit and (later) third-set match-point deficit to beat Elena Dementieva in one of the very best women’s matches of the young century.
Serena has lifted herself out of great trouble many times before. It’s well known that she possesses first-class survival skills and competes with noticeable distinction.
Yet, as much as we’ve seen Serena excel in the purely competitive dimensions of tennis, the long journey of her career has primarily showcased her talent for hitting a tennis ball better than anyone else on the WTA Tour. To be clear — and careful — here, the point to emphasize is not the relative diminishment of her competitive qualities, but the relative magnification of her ability to perform better than her counterparts. No female tennis player in the 21st century has been able to step up to the painted white line and hit precision shots under pressure the way Serena has. This is her most outstanding feature.
Sure, she’s a tremendous competitor, but oh, look at that untouchable first serve and those blistering groundstrokes!
It’s been easier to see and appreciate Serena The Performer than it’s been to marvel at Serena The Competitor. They’re both awesome (truly, in the weighty sense of that overused word), but the performer has eclipsed the competitor more than vice-versa.
Well, it seems that Serena wanted to address an imbalance and send a message about the kind of champion she truly is.
Throughout the past two weeks in Paris, Serena The Performer took a backseat and allowed The Competitor to drive the car into victory lane. What Serena Williams has done on red clay — her worst surface by far — has improbably but genuinely enabled us to regard her career with even more awe.
After defeating a determined and impressive Lucie Safarova in a fascinating and generally well-played three-set final on Saturday, Serena has managed to make the tennis community hold her in even higher esteem than before.
It’s all very plain and yet stunning at the same time: How can a player who entered France with 19 majors possibly cause some pundits and commentators to stop and think, “Gee, we’ve written so many great words about her over the years, but my goodness, have we UNDERESTIMATED Serena all this time?”
Serena seems to have done that at the 2015 French Open.
There is nothing this giant of the sport has to prove to anyone. She came to this tournament having already won multiple times at all four majors. She had won each of the last two major tournaments, swiftly erasing the rough seven months that began her 2014 season. She showed she was still the best player on tour by a country mile. Questions about longevity, desire and fitness were all answered emphatically.
What does a superabundant and relentless winner have to prove? Nothing, at least not to the outside world. The one person you can always prove more to, however, is your own self, and over the past two weeks, Serena very much appeared bent on showing herself what she was capable of, what she could do to still — somehow — improve the way her career is viewed by the masses.
Serena Jameka Williams had never before won a major tournament (or any tennis tournament) while coming back from one-set deficits in four different matches. She had never previously won a major tournament while losing five total sets. She had never previously won a major tournament in which she faced a break deficit in a must-win set on four separate occasions.
There’s a first time for everything, even for 19-time major champions who have done it all and then some.
Serena lost first sets to Anna-Lena Friedsam, Victoria Azarenka, Sloane Stephens, and Timea Bacsinszky at this French Open. She lost a set as well to Safarova in the final, the result of sloppy play when leading 4-1 in the second set, but also a magnificent stretch of play from Safarova at 5-6 in that same set. Serena trailed 4-2 in the second set and 2-0 in the third against Azarenka; 2-3* to Bacsinszky in the second set of Thursday’s semifinals; and 2-0 to Safarova in the third set of Saturday’s final.
Four one-set comebacks.
Five lost sets endured.
Four break-down deficits overcome in must-win sets.
Serena, in possession of her A-game for only the first 1.5 sets against Safarova — and never at any other point in the tourney, with the possible exception of the latter stages of the Stephens match in the fourth round — still willed herself through each and every one of those landmines. In doing so, she outdid Maria Sharapova at her own game.
Sharapova is a noted comeback master, a practiced and proven author of the one-set comeback and the occasional lefty scramble shot on clay, her best surface. Serena looked positively Sharapovian this fortnight, building a championship on the (red) bricks of fortitude and resilience, even when her game wasn’t firing on all cylinders. Moreover, as a result of winning this title, Serena — on her worst surface, mind you — now has three Roland Garros titles to two for Sharapova. Serena leads, 12-11, in all-time claycourt tournament championships.
This underscores the extent to which Serena is without peer in her era, the only real reason left to dispute the claim that she’s the greatest female tennis player who has ever lived. Yet, it also shows that after 19 previous majors, Serena was able to re-write history in such a substantial and unexpected way, offering a whole new prism through which to appreciate her greatness.
Let’s also absorb this next point for the sake of emphasis: Serena has endured bad or unexpectedly close matches in previous majors. She’s had bad days at the office but has lived to tell about them. This tournament wasn’t about that proverbial bad day, however. Serena entered this tournament in uncertain form, with whispers of elbow problems surrounding her at every turn. She dragged herself through the ugly match against Friedsam. She woke up just in the nick of time in the second set against Azarenka and, after a hiccup at the start of the third set, turned an 0-2 deficit into a 6-2 win, something she’d do on yet another Saturday a week later against Safarova.
Serena received Sloane Stephens’s best punch in the fourth round and was able to outlast her younger American opponent. She still wasn’t in top form that day, and while the elbow issues might have been in play during that match (and the others before it), Serena revealed after her up-and-down comeback win against Bacsinszky in the semis that she had been carrying the flu.
Elbow problems. Flu problems. Form problems. Opponent-based problems (Azarenka, Stephens and Bacsinszky played really well for 1.5 sets in each of those matches). Claycourt problems.
Serena had so many reasons to check out of this tournament, so many occasions in which to say, “It’s just not my day,” or “It’s just not my tournament,” or “I don’t feel well.”
She fought through all of those situations and their attached temptations. She won her third major title on her least-favorite surface. She registered several unprecedented feats when looking at the specific details of her fortnight-long journey.
A 19-time major champion clearly improved the extent to which she will be remembered as a claycourt player. Serena also produced that rare tournament in which her competitive fire exceeded her shotmaking prowess as the central instrument of her ultimate victory.
Serena Jameka Williams is a name synonymous with domination. Yet, at the 2015 French Open, Serena won the hard way.
It’s not the way she typically wins major championships, and yet that lack of a common pattern is precisely what makes this major title — number 20 — stand out even more in the mind’s eye.
We’ll be talking about Serena’s unfathomably successful career long after it’s done. Of all the major championships she’s claimed, this one holds a particularly special place in the pantheon.