June 6, 2015
Serena Williams dropped her racquet on the Roland Garros clay, stretched her arms skywards, and savoured the moment she sealed her 20th Grand Slam.
Though we witnessed a superb second-set comeback from Lucie Safarova, and a break in the very first game of the third, you always felt Serena would find a way.
So she did, 6-3, 6-7, 6-2. But she had to dig so deep that only the most ferocious fighter would have managed to pull this one off.
Let’s face it, Serena Williams was due an easier match than this turned out to be. As a tournament, it must go down as one of her toughest Slam successes.
She said afterwards: ‘ Twenty Slams is incredible for me, thanks to all my family and team. Without you it isn’t possible. This is magnificent for me and to win here for the third time is great for me. Thanks to the crowd and I send congratulations to Lucie too, she played a really good match and made it a great final.’
A set and 4-1 up, Serena switched off and nearly paid the price. There seemed no need for it.
Serena had exhibited none of the health problems that worried her earlier in the tournament, she had brought her best game to the big occasion from the start, and quickly seemed to blast Safarova out of contention.
Some of Serena’s first-set returns were truly terrifying. It didn’t get much easier for her opponent early in the second. Then Safarova began to give a much better account of herself, just when hope had almost evaporated. The comeback had some serious substance to it.
And it still had momentum as we moved into the final set, territory Serena had known four times already this fortnight. Williams forced herself to concentrate afresh, and forget how she had let the popular Czech come back from 1-4 to 5-4 in the blink of an eye, then take the second-set tie-break 7-2, and go a worrying 2-0 ahead in the third.
The first set had been such a procession, a celebration of supreme talent. Suddenly Serena was staring defeat in the face. She realised she had to raise her game once more to halt the underdog’s momentum. It was now or never. Williams screamed at herself so loudly that she even had to take a verbal obscenity warning from the umpire.
Perhaps Lucie Safarova was too nice to dispute Serena’s right to a 20th Grand Slam when it came to the crunch. She would have needed a truly nasty side to spoil the Williams party by then.
And let’s face it, if Safarova had a nasty side, she wouldn’t have played her doubles semi-final yesterday, she would have conserved her energy for the big match and its final set instead.
Everyone hoped Lucie was going to take the doubles title by way of consolation. When it mattered, she simply didn’t have the mental strength to sustain her singles attack on Williams at Roland Garros – but then again few ever do. Safarova is now world number seven and one of the most popular players on the planet as she prepares to return to Wimbledon.
Lucie said: ‘It’s been a great two weeks and today I have so many emotions but Serena you were amazing today, you are a great fighter.’
How does Serena Williams still do it at the age of 33? Her father Richard, sometimes ridiculed by the ignorant, gave Serena longevity with his vision for her career from an early age. Never play tournaments for the sake of it, only when they can help your development, only when they can genuinely raise your status within the game.
There are a few burnt-out players who might wish they’d had a father as wise as that. No wonder Serena concluded her victory speech by saying: ‘My dad, I love you and thank you from the bottom of my heart.’
Then there is Patrick Mouratoglou, her latest coach and arguably her soulmate, the man who has given Serena a new lease of life. So much credit must also go to him.
If that partnership holds, there is every chance that Williams will pass Steffi Graf’s 22 Grand Slams and perhaps even go beyond Margaret Court’s 24, won during an era when women’s tennis wasn’t quite so physically demanding.
It’s hard to imagine a female player better than Serena, though we have to accept that one day there will probably be one, since the progress of sport almost always offers higher levels in time.
For now, however, we should just appreciate Serena, even cherish her brilliance and take our chance to witness an all-time great first-hand if we can.
She isn’t superhuman, as her relatively recent defeat to Sabine Lisicki at Wimbledon can always remind us. The second set at Roland Garros was a further reminder of her vulnerability. But she is the best by a distance, especially when it comes down to a straight clash of wills. No one comes close to matching her extraordinary will to win. Andy Murray take note.
How many Grand Slams would Serena already have, if she hadn’t taken two years off to model and act? You could look at that time away from the game another way, and ask whether she would still be playing tennis at all.
Serena is only human, but she has done it her way…and in the long run it has proved the right way.
Her appetite is insatiable, and now a Calendar Slam beckons.