June 1, 2015
So she did it again. For the third successive match at Roland Garros, Serena Williams struck back from a set down to come through in three.
On this occasion, Sloane Stephens, her fellow African-American, was the victim of that irrepressible Williams will to win.
Even though the younger woman had blitzed the first set 6-1 and Serena, it seemed, could hardly do a thing right, the world number one dug deep enough transform the match.
Stephens was just two games from victory, yet Williams was never going to allow her to take those final steps. And so the favourite took the second set 7-5.
Even then, Serena was walking a tightrope. A drive volley in the second game of the final set clipped the baseline, when just a couple more millimetres would have seen the ball fly out, leaving Stephens a game up with three break points for 2-0.
Perhaps some of the previous off-court dramas between this pair meant that defeat for Williams was simply unthinkable. Although Serena has recently claimed that she always roots for “cute” Sloane, there was tension after Stephens beat Williams at the 2013 Australian Open.
“Unfollowings” on social media and a revelation from Sloane that Serena had barely spoken to her seemed to leave their relationship at rock-bottom a couple of years ago. No one is quite sure how completely wounds have healed.
Although Serena tried to comfort Stephens by remarking that it had been ‘a great match’ this time, Sloane didn’t seem to return the apparent attempt at warmth.
But whether Williams has just beaten a friend or foe, she will certainly take comfort from her brave final set, which saw her save a break point with an ace, and stay strong enough to break again herself for a 6-3 victory.
It was the ninth time this year that Williams had played a third set, and the ninth time she had come out on top.
After having to engineer three such turnarounds at Roland Garros alone, we can only conclude that if she is going to win yet another Slam in Paris, Serena is really going to have done it the hard way this time.
Will these titanic struggles accumulate and come back to haunt the 33-year-old in the final stages? We’ll see how much energy she has left and whether she can continue to pull off these remarkable escapes. They might even work in her favour.
Remaining opponents – and Sara Errani, the unpredictable Italian, is next – will know that, even if by chance they catch Serena cold and win the first set by some crushing margin, they may well still lose. That has got to be an unsettling feeling.
As for her victory over Stephens, Serena said: ‘This was the Sloane that can play really well. I started slow, she outplayed me. I kept fighting, I never give up. I thought: “What can I do better? I can serve better.” So I did that.’
There is something frightening about the fact that Serena can rely upon her warrior spirit until such time as she can find the technical answers to her problems.
And you have to wonder, who can stop her now? Ana Ivanovic? Some other underdog? It’s possible…but not necessarily probable that Serena can be tripped up now.
We never know which Serena is going to start a match, of course. But we have a pretty good idea about which Serena is going to finish one.
So how long can the Comeback Queen keep doing it at Roland Garros 2015? Long enough, you suspect. Long enough for an incredible twentieth Slam. And if she does stay the course, how she’ll deserve that amazing milestone!