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Steve Flink: Second Roland Garros run sweeter for Serena

6/8/2013 5:00:00 PM

Roland Garros - When Serena Williams secured the French Open crown for the first time way back in 2002, she was just beginning her so-called “ Serena Slam”, and on her way to taking four consecutive majors. Although clay was never her preferred surface, the prevailing feeling at that time was that she would inevitably capture the title in Paris at least a few more times. Serena, of course, has always had the gifts to display her greatness anywhere at any given time, to rule at the majors almost whenever and wherever she wanted, to translate desire into achievement with regularity.

In some respects, she has done just that; in other ways, she has not. The formidable 31-year-old American has been the victor at Wimbledon and the Australian Open no fewer than five times. She has captured the United States Open on four occasions. That is a well-balanced record on the faster surfaces, but somehow she had frequently underperformed on the dirt in France. Since she eclipsed her sister Venus in the final of the 2002 edition of Roland Garros, Serena had never made it beyond the semifinals in seven appearances, falling a year ago inexplicably against Virginie Razzano in the opening round after winning the first set and leading 5-1 in the second set tie-break. That was her absolute low point at the shrine of clay court tennis.

To be sure, Williams had simply never fully come to terms with the world’s premier clay court event. Her preparation was sometimes haphazard. Her frame of mind was often negative as she approached the tournament. She seldom played her finest brand of clay court tennis at Roland Garros, and over the years she put a much larger premium on winning Wimbledon, which was understandable in light of the way she plays and how much the grass courts suit her game.

But this time around, Williams was primed for the French Open, perhaps more than ever before. She had taken clay court titles en route in Charleston, Madrid and Rome. She had won five tournaments already in 2013. And she was determined to make amends for not only last year but so many others at Roland Garros when she did not do herself justice. In many ways, the top seed’s title run this year was long overdue, and Serena’s performance today in the final against No. 2 seed Maria Sharapova was first rate across the board. She has played better matches, given more stirring accounts of herself, and sustained a higher level of tennis at times these last few years.

And yet, the fact remains that Williams was still terrific against Sharapova in a hotly contested final of high quality. This was the first final round appointment between the top two seeds at Roland Garros since Steffi Graf defeated Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario in 1995, a surprising fact when one considers how regularly the leading players show up as expected for the biggest matches. Given that background, it was fitting that the charming Sanchez-Vicario—a three time champion at Roland Garros—was here for the presentation ceremony. That gave it an extra touch of class.

Sharapova knew full well how daunting her task was against a ferocious adversary. After ousting Serena in two of their first three career showdowns in 2004, she had lost to the American twelve times in a row, suffering precisely half of those defeats since the spring of 2012 in Madrid. Most of those matches featured one-sided triumphs for Williams, and the surface hardly seemed to matter. The matchup has been unmistakably bad for Sharapova. She can stand toe to toe with Serena for stretches from the backcourt, but ultimately she is overpowered and overwhelmed. Moreover, Serena serves her off the court and returns with such crackling firepower that Maria is hard pressed to find an answer. All in all, playing Williams has been a nightmare for Sharapova. She is up against a far superior athlete.

But her attitude from the outset of this contest was excellent. Sharapova commenced the battle with grit and gumption, and managed to open up a brief window of opportunity. After Serena came out blazing off her returns, thundering her shots with extraordinary depth and pace, the defending champion found herself down 0-40 in the opening game of the match. But then Serena made an errant forehand return off a second serve, and Maria followed with an excellent kicking second serve that drew an error from the American. Sharapova released an ace down the T for deuce. She soon fell behind break point for the fourth time, but saved that with an unstoppable serve to the backhand.

Sharapova gamely held on after another deuce for 1-0, and was clearly buoyed by that development. In the second game, Williams opened with an open stance forehand winner up the line for 15-0 but never won another point. Two searing returns from Sharapova drew errors from the American, and then the Russian unleashed a penetrating backhand down the line, coaxing Serena into a forehand error. At double break point, Sharapova showcased her improved defensive capabilities, and was rewarded for her hard work when Williams pulled a two-hander wide crosscourt.

Just like that, Sharapova was ahead 2-0, and she swiftly moved to 40-15 in the third game with an ace down the T. On the following point, both players were grunting with increasing vigor, raising their decimal level with every stroke. But Serena had the last word with a forehand down the line that was unmanageable for Maria. Then Williams pulled Sharapova wide on the forehand side, and the Russian could not make an arduous running forehand. An explosive return from the American took her to break point, and she sealed it by moving into the court to cut off a lob from her opponent. Williams calmly came forward to put away an overhead, and was back on serve.

That was a severe jolt to Sharapova, who had twice been within a point of a 3-0 lead. Williams now had her bearings, holding at 30 for 2-2 with a pattern that would become familiar. Serena threw in a cagey first serve kicker in the ad court, and took advantage of a relatively short return, driving a forehand into the clear for an outright winner. Sharapova commenced the fifth game with a double fault and was broken at 30 when Serena intelligently kept her forehand inside-in return short and low, drawing the error from an off balance Sharapova.

Williams was rolling now, and both players knew it. At 3-2, she served an ace down the T for 40-15, and eventually held at 30 with another smart play on serve. She produced a 157 kilometer first serve to the backhand and threw off Sharapova’s timing. Sharapova’s return flew over the baseline, and Williams had moved to 4-2. But Sharapova was not conceding anything. Despite missing three out of five first serves in the seventh game, she held at 15 as Serena missed four returns. Sharapova’s second serve was decidedly better than it has been in recent encounters with Williams, and it came through impressively for her in that game. That stand from the Russian had carryover consequences. Although Serena served an ace for 30-15 in the eighth game, Sharapova worked assiduously on the American’s forehand and was rewarded with a cluster of mistakes. At 30-40, Williams drove a forehand down the line with the wind that carried way over the baseline, and an unwavering Sharapova was back on serve at 4-4.

But she was serving into the wind. Trying her utmost to stand up on the baseline and take Serena’s deep returns as early as possible, Maria understandably missed some crucial shots. At 15-30, Williams made one of her piercing returns and Sharapova drove a two-hander long. Double break point down, Sharapova could not contain the ultra-aggressive American. Williams drove a forehand at an acute angle crosscourt for another outright winner, and that clutch play allowed her to regain the break lead and serve for the set. At 30-0 in the tenth game, the world No. 1 served an ace down the T. Two points later, she sealed the set, serving wide to Maria’s forehand to open up the court for the forehand approach. Sharapova’s passing shot landed long.

The first set had lasted 51 entertaining minutes, but despite breaking Serena twice, Maria had nothing to show for it. Yet she fought on persistently. In the opening game of the second set, she served a couple of double faults on her way to a 15-40 deficit, but the obstinate and spirited Russian wiped away five break points and held on for 1-0 with a forehand crosscourt winner. The primary problem now was that Williams was serving with more authority, precision and consistency than she had in the first set. She was essentially unbreakable, and plainly unshakable. That made Sharapova’s task even more daunting.

Williams held at 15 for 1-1. With Sharapova serving in the third game at 30-40, the defending champion went for too much on a backhand down the line, and missed it wide. Williams had the break for 2-1, and never really looked back. She held at love for 3-1, missing only one first serve in that impeccable game. Sharapova held from deuce for 2-3 with excellent shot selection, but Serena stepped right up and held at 15 for 4-2, closing that game with another ace down the T. Maria out-dueled Serena forehand to forehand to hold on for 3-4, but the American was too composed now. She held at 15 for 5-3 with consecutive aces, sending both of those untouchable serves down the T.

Sharapova was taken to deuce by Williams in the ninth game, but she responded admirably with another top of the line, second serve kicker that Serena could not handle off the backhand. A scorching crosscourt forehand from Sharapova elicited an error from Serena, and the No. 2 seed was still in the match—but not, however, for very long. At 5-4, Williams reminded us all why she is unequivocally the greatest woman server of all time. She opened the last game with an ace down the T before committing a wild backhand error for 15-15. Another ace down the T made it 30-15, and a shrewd first serve kicker provided the opening for Serena to drive a two-hander up the line for a winner. At 40-15, Williams displayed her poise under pressure, serving her third ace of the game to close out a well-deserved 6-4, 6-4 triumph. In that second set, Williams won 20 of 23 points on serve against one of the game’s greatest returners, and Serena’s final service game was nothing less than a gem. She finally has won the French Open for the second time, and deservedly so.

Williams now has captured 16 majors across her storied career, and has won 31 matches in a row this season. She is moving ever closer to the revered Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova, who both secured 18 Grand Slam singles championships. Above all else, Williams has established herself as a big match player of the highest order, losing only four times in twenty career major finals. Her sister Venus stopped her in the final of the 2001 U.S. Open. Sharapova turned back Williams in the 2004 Wimbledon title round match. Venus Williams upended Serena again in the final of Wimbledon in 2008. And, most surprising of all, Samantha Stosur surprised Serena in the final of the 2011 U.S. Open. But those are Serena’s only losses in major finals.

So where does Williams go from here? Surely, she will keep climbing the historical ladder because never before has she been so driven. The view here is that Williams is destined to pass Evert and Navratilova very soon. She will be the overwhelming favorite at Wimbledon and it is hard to imagine her losing on the lawns of the All England Club in late June and July. At the U.S. Open, she could be challenged more than at Wimbledon, but will remain inarguably the player to beat. So she could tie Chrissie and Martina as soon as September, and move past them in due course. Next on the all-time list is Helen Wills Moody with 19 majors, and Williams will almost surely surpass that American legend, perhaps next year. That would leave Steffi Graf and Margaret Court as the only women to take more singles majors. Graf has 22 and Court owns 24. My guess is that Williams will move past Graf before she is through, but will probably fall short of Court.

The bottom line is that she is playing the greatest tennis of her illustrious career. She is much fitter now, decidedly more focused, and committed to exploring her true potential with an all-consuming passion we have never witnessed from her before. At long last, she seems genuinely interested in making a bid to become the greatest woman tennis player ever. But she must celebrate a few more substantial years of luster to have her name placed up there as a candidate for the best of all time. She has spent too many years not giving the game she plays for a living the best she has to offer.

Yet Williams seems to recognize how much of her future is in her own hands. As she said after the match, “I’m really relaxed. I really enjoy every moment out there. I always said that I felt like I have never played my best tennis. I have said that for years, that I feel like I can always do better and play better and I have always wanted to reach that level. Maybe I’m just trying to get there.”

With that kind of determination, there is no reason why Williams can’t realize her largest dreams.
Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He has been a columnist for since 2007. You can purchase Steve's latest book "The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time" here.