Count out Serena Williams at your own risk.
The former world No. 1, who has not held that position since 2010, last won a Grand Slam title at Wimbledon in July 2010 and has played only sporadically over the last two years, ending 2011 ranked No. 12.
Yet, if you look at Williams’ recent form, especially in the clay court events leading up to this month’s French Open (27 May-10 June), the year’s second Grand Slam, at Roland Garros, Paris, it is hard to believe that her first—and only— French Open title came here way back in 2002.
The second coming: Serena Williams has played 29 WTA Tour matches this year. Photo imaging by Raajan/Mint
When the event begins, the former top-ranked player, now No. 5, will be one of the favourites to lift her second French Open crown. She is riding on a 17-match winning streak, and has won back-to-back clay court events at Charleston, US (2-8 April) and Madrid, Spain (7-13 May). Her withdrawal from Rome’s Internazionali BNL d’Italia Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) event (14-21 May) in the semi-finals due to a back injury seems like a blip in an otherwise solid run.
The question is: Can the moody player, often given to long spells of disinterest, hold it together for two weeks in Paris?
Williams’ start to 2012 was ordinary. Having lost to players ranked way below her in the first two events—including the Australian Open in January—the 30-year-old hit bullseye at the WTA event at Charleston, losing just 15 games on the way to her first title of the year. Then, even as the men—Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal included—complained about the new blue-coloured clay courts, Williams got her second title in Madrid.
Tough-terrain fight: World No. 7 Li Na. Photographs by Giampiero Sposito/Reuters
“Women are way tougher than men. That’s why we have the babies, you guys could never handle kids,” she told reporters after beating top seed Victoria Azarenka 6-1, 6-3 in the final. “We don’t complain, we do our best. On the WTA (tour), we are real performers, we are not about going out there and being weenies.”
As brazen as she was typically off-court, she dominated on the field too. Williams lost just eight games in Madrid while beating world No. 1 Azarenka of Belarus and No. 2 Maria Sharapova of Russia on her way to the Madrid title.
Between her semi-final and final wins at Charleston, she lost just three games. “She smoked the top two players. Anytime you beat the top two ranked players that easily, people are going to take notice, saying she’s got to have the best chance to win the (Grand) Slam,” says Brad Gilbert, a former top 10 ranked player who is now an ESPN analyst.
Typically, when Williams dominates, the rest of the field looks pale. But is it that the women’s field is so shallow that it makes her dominance stand out even more?
No. 1 Victoria Azarenka
Cliff Drysdale, ESPN announcer and former ATP professional, who was commentating at the Charleston event, feels that “there is no black or white; a little bit of both”. He is quick to commend, though, her dominant form these days.
“She played nearly flawless tennis. She is so dominant, both as a personality and as a player...when she plays her best tennis, no one comes even close,” says Drysdale.
Her closest competitors, Azarenka, world No. 7 Li Na (the French Open defending champion) and Sharapova have had modest results so far. While Sharapova did win the Rome event, beating Li Na, clay is hardly her favourite surface. Azarenka reached the final at Madrid but got annihilated by Williams. Given her run at the start of the year (she won four straight events, including the Australian Open), she remains a challenger, though.
Styling the play
One of the reasons why Williams has been able to do well on clay so far this year is also because of her style of play. Says Drysdale: “She is playing on clay courts like she is playing on hard courts. She isn’t sliding as much on clay as you’d expect and she goes for a strong return of serve.”
Most experts feel that even though she has been dominant on clay this year, there has been negligible change in her game. “She is obviously a good mover, has got good footwork and ground strokes. She is powerful enough to hit winners which not many players get to do. Otherwise, her game is pretty similar,” says Tom Perrotta, a tennis writer for The Wall Street Journal.
There is also no clay court specialist in the women’s draw who can challenge Williams when she is at the top of her form. Since 2007, the French Open has had a new champion every year.
There is no substitute for practice, and here too, Williams seems to be on track.
She played her first tournament of 2011 in June; she skipped all the events before it because of a right foot injury. In 2010, she played in just four events (including two clay court events) before the French Open. In 2009, although she was more regular and even won the Australian Open, she lost all her clay court matches at warm-up events leading up to the French Open, before losing in the quarters at Roland Garros. Compared with that, 2012 has seen her play many more matches.
In 2011, leading players like Caroline Wozniacki (80 matches), who was ranked No. 1 almost the whole of the year, No. 8 Marion Bartoli (83) and Vera Zvonareva (78), who finished 2011 ranked No. 7, battled hard for ranking points. Williams played just 25 matches on the WTA Tour. In contrast, she has already played 29 matches this year.
Perrotta believes that the more regularly she plays, the steadier she gets. “But the head can go for a toss if there is little or no practice or if the player is out of shape; that’s the bigger problem. When a player is not physically fit, it is frustrating mentally,” says Perrotta. But mentally, he adds, she is as good as any competitor.
When asked by reporters at a post-match conference about her preparations for the French Open, soon after she withdrew from the Rome event, Williams said: “I feel fine. It’s just that with a lot coming up, this is a good week to get better and I’m confident that I’ll be 100%.”
After she won her second-round match in Rome, she even claimed to be getting more confident on clay. “I definitely have developed a lot of confidence on clay and I like it—well, I have always liked it. It’s only that I haven’t won a lot of tournaments on it. But now I’m getting more wins.”
It’s hard to imagine, reminds Gilbert, that Williams won her first French title 10 years ago—she is again the favourite to lift it. “To me, she has stood the test of time,” he says.
Age, it would seem, has little effect on Serena Williams.