Paris: Fresh from attending the Royal wedding, Serena Williams will take aim at the upstarts who have been honeymooning at the majors in her absence when she makes her long-awaited Grand Slam return at Roland Garros. The 36-year-old American, who first played the French Open in 1998, has been the champion in Paris three times. Should she win a fourth Roland Garros, it will take her level with Margaret Court’s all-time Grand Slam record of 24 majors.
But there are question marks over her fitness and readiness for the 2018 tournament which starts on Sunday. She has played just four matches on the WTA Tour all year, the last of which was a first round loss in Miami at the end of March. Her last appearance at a Slam was at the 2017 Australian Open which she won while pregnant.
Having then missed the rest of the season as she gave birth to daughter Alexis Olympia in September, Williams’ world ranking has slumped to 454 from its dizzy heights of undisputed number one.
“I’m not just coming back to come back. I’m coming back to win," she said defiantly in a HBO documentary ‘Being Serena’ which aired last week. Her longtime coach Patrick Mouratoglou, who oversaw her first training session on Court Philippe Chatrier at Roland Garros on Sunday, has no doubts that Williams’s competitive streak has not been blunted by the priorities of motherhood. “Serena will play the French Open to win it," he told the WTA Tour. “Can she do it? Serena can achieve anything—after being her coach for six years, I’m even more sure of that statement."
In her absence—as well as the 15-month doping ban served by longtime rival and five-time major winner Maria Sharapova—there’s been a stampede to get on the Grand Slam honours board before normal service is resumed.
Unheralded Latvian Jelena Ostapenko won last year’s French Open, Sloane Stephens was an equally surprising champion at the US Open before Caroline Wozniacki finally converted potential into Slam success by taking Serena’s Australian Open title in January this year.
Needing to use a protected ranking to get into the main draw in Paris, no-one will want to face a fired-up Serena in the opening rounds in a tournament and city which has given her many highs as well as the occasional low.
It was in 2002 that she won her first Roland Garros—beating sister Venus in the final—and second major after an agonising wait to add to her collection that had stalled at just the one from the 1999 US Open. She has since added the 2013 and 2015 titles in Paris, more than adequate compensation for the horror shows of 2012 when she was shocked in the first round by French journeywoman Virginie Razzano and a second round exit to Garbine Muguruza two years later.
Paris and its culture—and shopping—have also kept her enthralled. Serena owns a lavish apartment in the city’s plush 7th arrondissement with a view of the Eiffel Tower. She has also achieved a smattering of conversational French in which to make winning speeches to an appreciative crowd at Roland Garros.
“I’ve always had a wonderful relationship with Paris," she admitted. “I feel like I can just live a normal life here." Serena’s last appearance at the French Open ended in a final defeat at the hands of Muguruza in 2016.
Mouratoglou believes her rivals will be foolish to think that Serena has little chance of making another championship match in a city she considers to be a second home. “What I find the most encouraging is her enthusiasm, her motivation, and the quality of her work," he said.
“She obviously comes back to win and the wait has been long, so she will probably start Roland Garros with a mix of stress, because she will want to do well, and excitement because playing those events is the reason why she made such huge efforts to come back."