June 4, 2015
Once again, Serena Williams needed to come from behind. Once more she found the strength when the cause seemed beyond her.
Timea Bacsinszky seemed to have such freedom of movement, to show such fearlessness in her stroke-play, that when she took the first set 6-4 and more than held her own in the early games of the second at 2-2, you sensed it could be the end for the world number one.
Serena appeared to be almost permanently on the verge of tears, suffering from an illness that seemed at times to threaten her ability to continue.
Then Williams summoned the old warrior spirit, overcame any burgeoning sense of panic, and tapped into her best game just in time.
Back she stormed to win the final two sets 6-3, 6-0. And suddenly it was Bacsinszky who was evidently trying to fight back the tears, knowing how close she had come to a remarkable upset.
Serena was in no state to speak at length immediately after her fourth comeback of Roland Garros 2015. ‘I’m not sure how I won,’ she explained, ‘I tried and tried…and I hope to feel better on Saturday.’
Surely only illness can deny Serena her twentieth Slam; and in Paris too, a place that has become so special to her.
No disrespect to Lucie Safarova, the 28-year-old Czech standing in Serena’s way, but the manner of her 7-5, 7-5 victory over Ana Ivanovic was less than impressive psychologically, especially if you judge it by the demanding standards that will be required of her in the final on Saturday.
For a start, there was…well…the start. Safarova went 5-2 down to Ivanovic, who then tightened with the first set almost in the bag and threw it all away.
Will Serena allow Lucie such an amazing let-off, if Williams starts off with all guns blazing and takes a commanding lead? Unlikely.
Then there was the manner of Safarova’s second-set victory. She didn’t so much close out, as breathe a sigh of relief when she began to choke and was gifted one fresh chance after another by the Serb and her misguided determination to risk unnecessary winners against a crumbling opponent.
When you have to be helped over the line by your rival’s atrocious decision-making – again the understandable result of intense pressure – you have to question Safarova’s ability to handle the pressure of a final against the formidable Serena.
It’s hard to escape the thought that, even if Safarova comes within touching distance of glory against Williams, she will lack the mental strength and ruthlessness to supply the killer blows. If she wobbles like she did against Ivanovic, Williams will show her no mercy.
This criticism might be seen as harsh on the day Safarova achieved something remarkable and held her nerve at least better than Ivanovic, to find a way through to a Grand Slam final. How many of us wish we had a fraction of her athleticism and belated composure, for all her imperfections?
But this is the big-time. And it doesn’t get more big-time than Serena Williams. So for Safarova to win, it is more likely that Serena will have to succumb to whatever health problems have been troubling her, or else go into some kind of meltdown and effectively beat herself. That’s how remote the possibility of Safarova beating Williams seems to be. That’s how wide the gulf in mental strength appears to be, when you analyse the two finalists.
Of course, if we are proved wrong, we will be the first to salute Safarova, for it will mean she has learnt massively from her semi-final experience and has almost reinvented herself psychologically. That’s the beauty of tennis. We don’t know for sure. But it really does seem that only illness can deny Serena now.