Serena Williams was in tears and at one of the lowest points in her career, her earliest Grand Slam defeat.
Beaten in the first round of the French Open by Virginie Razzano, the American said she knew she needed help to regain her Wimbledon title. She had entered Roland Garros unbeaten on clay for the season and was two points away from victory before losing 4-6, 7-6 (7-5), 6-3 to the French player ranked 106 places below her on the WTA tour.
Three days later, Williams sought out coach Patrick Mouratoglou at his tennis academy not far from her Paris apartment. Since then, the 31-year-old has gone 67-3 and returns to the French Open starting May 26 as the tournament favorite, again ranked No. 1.
“I didn’t want to go home,” Williams said in an interview last week in Rome regarding her decision to hire Mouratoglou as a coaching consultant alongside her parents. “I needed a place to train in Paris and I’d known him a little bit before, so I asked him if I could train at his academy.”
With Mouratoglou, the 42-year-old son of former EDF Energies Nouvelles Chairman Paris Mouratoglou, by her side, the then fifth-ranked Williams lost just once more in 2012. She raised her Grand Slam single championship count to 15 by winning Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, added the season-ending WTA Championships, and took gold medals in singles and doubles at the London Olympics.
Her loss to the then 29-year-old Razzano, when she squandered a 5-1 lead in the second-set tiebreak, was her first in the opening round of a major in 47 Grand Slam tournaments and left her “really upset,” Williams said at the Italian Open in Rome.
“I barely was able to get through my first three, four matches at Wimbledon,” said Williams, who was today drawn against 83rd-ranked Anna Tatishvili of Georgia in the opening round of the French Open, which starts in two days. “I really, really struggled in those matches. After that, I just had to let things go, had to emotionally let things go and just play tennis.”
Now the oldest woman to hold the top spot in the rankings, Williams heads to Roland Garros on a career-best winning streak of 24 matches after beating Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka, a 23-year-old from Belarus, 6-1, 6-3 in Rome for her 51st WTA title. She’s the 5-4 favorite to win her second French Open title, according to U.K. bookmaker William Hill Plc. (WMH) That means a successful $4 bet will return $5 plus the original wager.
Defending French Open champion Maria Sharapova, 26, of Russia and world No. 3 Azarenka are both at 7-2. Williams snapped the second-ranked Sharapova’s 21-match clay court run in the finals of Madrid earlier this month.
Williams said she doesn’t feel she has a point to prove at Roland Garros, where her only championship came in 2002, making it her least successful major. She has adapted her game on clay by sliding into her shots more and playing more angles.
“Hopefully, I can win a round,” Williams said. “If not, I’ll just have a vacation in Paris.”
Mary Jo Fernandez, a former player and now the U.S. Fed Cup captain, said Williams could surpass Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova’s totals of 18 Grand Slam single crowns and become the most successful U.S. player of all time.
Fernandez said Williams is as eager to win titles as when they first played Fed Cup together in 1999. Whether Williams can surpass Evert and Navratilova and even tie Steffi Graf’s Open Era record of 22 Grand Slam singles titles will depend on her fitness, according to Fernandez.
“If she’s healthy, look out,” she said.
The French Open’s slow, high-bouncing red clay surface has been the most difficult to crack for Williams because it “negates her power a bit,” Fernandez, who is also an ESPN tennis analyst, said in a phone interview last week.
“More players are able to get in rallies with her and be patient,” Fernandez said. “She wants everything to be going perfect. On clay, there are going to be a few more swings, where it’s not going your way all the time. When she gets a bit frustrated, or someone stays with her, she can get uptight. And she got really uptight in that match last year.”
Williams also may be affected by how long her 32-year-old sister, Venus, remains on the women’s tour. The five-time Wimbledon champion, ranked 30th, was diagnosed with the energy-sapping Sjogren’s syndrome in 2011 and has struggled during some matches.
“She has some good moments, and whenever she feels great physically, it’s not very easy to play her,” Serena said.
Fernandez said Venus’s condition must affect her younger sister and frequent travel companion on tour. Venus Williams wasn’t available to comment.
“They’ve done so much through the years together, and they’ve had each other right by their sides,” Fernandez said. “But when you talk to the both of them, there is no inclination of retiring, even from Venus. Even if Venus retires, I still think Serena will keep on playing away because she loves it.”
Serena said she’s surprised to still be on the circuit herself.
“I didn’t think I’d be playing at this age,” she said. “I thought I would be long gone, forgotten about.”
The key to her longevity and success has been to pace her career, she said. Both sisters have tailored their tennis schedules to give them time for interests including acting or design.
“I feel really fit right now,” Serena said. “I’ve never played 20 to 30 tournaments a year like some players. I always played like 16, 17 or at the most 18, maybe. Throughout years and years, slow and steady wins the race.”
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