Today, Williams secured her third French Open crown and 20th major singles title with yet another astonishing display of pride, temerity, professionalism and willpower. For the fifth time in seven matches at Roland Garros, the world No. 1 was stretched to three sets, this time against the dynamic left-hander Lucie Safarova, but Serena found victory in the end, and not by accident. She held back the No. 13 seed 6-3, 6-7 (2), 6-2 in a compelling final round showdown despite squandering a 4-1, 40-15 lead in the second set. Five points from a decisive triumph, Williams faltered while Safarova soared to another level, and that combination of factors nearly cost the favorite irrevocably. In losing the second set and falling behind 0-2 in the third, Serena dropped eight of ten games. She was temporarily dispirited, her energy level sinking decidedly, her mind out of sync.
But that was the essential story of this tournament: no matter how many times Williams drifted precariously close to the edge of elimination, she kept fighting with her singular ferocity to reestablish winning ground; no matter how dire the circumstances, Williams—battling an illness and many able adversaries—refused to surrender. When she secured her first major back in 1999 at the U.S. Open, she took four three set matches in a row to reach the final, roaring back in the first three of those contests from a set down. Then she stopped Martina Hingis in straight sets to win the event. That was the most three set matches she had ever contested in the course of winning a major.
Until now. Across this fortnight, Williams was hard pressed in almost every match. Prior to the final, she rallied four times from a set down to record victories, most notably rescuing herself from a set and 2-4 down against Victoria Azarenka in the third round, and again from 0-2 in the final set of that encounter. Against countrywoman Sloane Stephens in the round of 16, Williams was crushed in the first set and was three points from bowing out of the tournament before striking back defiantly to win 1-6, 7-5, 6-3. In the semifinals, when she seemed most out of sorts with her health and strikingly vulnerable, Williams found herself trailing 6-4, 3-2, down a set and a break against No. 23 seed Timea Bacsinszky. She rallied to win that one 4-6, 6-3, 6-0.
In the final, the trouble for Williams came much later in the match. Determined to avoid another inauspicious start, anxious to set a winning tone early, ready to take charge of the battle from the very outset, Williams was arguably in her best form of the tournament against a terrific player who had ousted defending champion Maria Sharapova and 2008 champion Ana Ivanovic on her way to the title round match.
Williams had too much respect for the gifted Safarova to leave any stone unturned during the first set and well beyond. Across the board, Williams was flowing, blasting winners at will of the ground, moving with alacrity around the court, focusing on each point with full intensity, and serving as only she can. It was a recipe that seemed certain to bring the American a swift and uncomplicated triumph. Safarova had little or no chance to impose herself, and her options were severely limited by the supreme potency and immensity of the American’s game.
In the opening game, Williams held at 15 with regal authority, sending her first ace down the T at 194 kilometers when the score was 40-15. Safarova stood her ground nicely, holding at 15 for 1-1, pouring in five of six first serves and backing up her delivery beautifully. But Serena had her game face totally on, holding at 30 with another ace—this one out wide in the ad court. Now, inevitably, Williams made her move, breaking Safarova at 15 with a blazing forehand return winner crosscourt to build a 3-1 lead. The way Williams was serving, the set was for all practical purposes over. Despite a double fault at 40-15 in the fifth game, Williams held at 30 for 4-1.
To her credit, Safarova kept biding her time. Her demeanor was impressive, for she was appearing in her first major final at the age of 28. In her semifinal with Ivanovic, Safarova looked awfully apprehensive at times, particularly when she served for the match at 5-4 in the second set. She released three double faults in that game, including one on match point. Although she recovered her equilibrium and won that match 7-5, 7-5, Safarova had seemed slightly uncomfortable with her surroundings.
And yet, despite this onslaught from Williams in the final, Safarova was acquitting herself reasonably well under the circumstances. She held comfortably for 2-4 but Williams moved to 5-2 with another game-ending ace at 40-30—the third time in the set she had done that. Safarova was down set point when she served at 2-5 but she erased it with a forehand down the line winner. The underdog held on for 3-5, but Williams continued her mastery on serve, holding at 15 to seal the set 6-3 in 31 efficient minutes. In five service games, Williams had conceded only eight points and she had not faced a single break point, nor had she even been pushed to deuce. Williams looked almost indestructible in closing out the set.
That confidence carried over into the second set. Safarova connected with only 6 of 12 first serves in the opening game of the second set. With some superb defense that led her toward offense, Williams broke serve with an inside out backhand winner. It was a dazzling and timely shot. Serena held at love for 2-0, releasing two more aces in that game. After Safarova held, Williams went to 3-1 at the cost of a mere one point on her serve. She closed that game declaratively, taking Safarova’s down the middle return, stepping in to rifle a backhand crosscourt for a winner. At 1-3, 30-40, Safarova produced a wide serve in the ad court that Williams read swiftly. The American drove her two-handed return for an outright winner, and now had a double break lead at 4-1.
The crowd clearly sensed it was over. Williams conveyed a growing confidence as well. The top seed was looking in the sixth game to put the contest out of reach. An ace lifted her to 30-15, and when she made an exquisite inside out forehand winner for 40-15, Williams jumped exuberantly, as if she felt that the triumph now was tangible.
Yet Safarova was not giving up. She cracked a forehand winner down the line to close the gap to 40-30. On the following point, Safarova added pace to her forehand return, rushing Williams into a backhand mistake. It was deuce. Surely, Williams would take matters back into her own hands and get on with her task. But that was not the case at all. She double faulted long, and then double faulted into the net. Up until 4-1, 40-15 in that second set—when she was on the verge of a comfortable victory—Serena had won no less than 31 of 41 points on her delivery and had not come close to losing her serve. Now she had inexplicably double faulted consecutively to hand Safarova one of the breaks back.
The fact remained that Williams still led 4-2. Yet Safarova promptly held at 15 for 3-4. Now Safarova suddenly looked much more in command from the baseline. She broke again for 4-4 as Williams served a double fault at 15-40. Safarova held for 5-4, but then Williams reasserted herself, serving prodigiously to hold for 5-5, breaking Safarova for 6-5 with a crackling backhand return winner crosscourt. Williams was serving for the match in the twelfth game, and no one really thought she would not close it out there.
Williams surged to 30-15, two points away from claiming the title. Safarova did not shy away from that moment. She made a spectacular forehand winner down the line for 30-30. Then Safarova got good depth on her crosscourt backhand, and Williams sent a shaky forehand into the net. Safarova could do little wrong now, and she released a stunning backhand winner down the line. For the third time in the set, she had broken Williams. It was 6-6. Williams double faulted to fall behind 0-2 in the tie-break, and then was guilty of a backhand unforced error. Safarova won one of her two service points for 4-1 before Serena took the following point. At 4-2, however, Williams tried in vain to overpower Safarova, who scrambled superbly and used a soft sliced backhand to coax an error from Williams.
Safarova had 5-2, and soon grabbed the next two points on forehand unprovoked mistakes from the beleaguered American. The tie-break had gone to the No. 13 seed. The contest was locked at one set all. Williams fans undoubtedly were deeply concerned about her fortunes, as well they should have been. The American did not start the final set with any conviction. In the opening game, she double faulted into the net to make it 30-30. From there, she missed a forehand down the line, and bungled a backhand approach shot. Safarova had the immediate break for 2-0. She had turned what looked like a rout against her into a potential comeback victory. She looked quietly confident. She was an increasingly vibrant competitor.
Safarova held at love for 2-0, directing four first serves in a row to the vulnerable Williams forehand. Williams did not get a single return back into play. But Williams roused herself in the nick of time, as she so often does. She held at love for 1-2, sending out three unreturnable deliveries. Safarova advanced to 30-0 in the fourth game, but Williams raised her game enormously to take the next three points before Safarova double faulted at 30-40. They were back on serve at 2-2.
Yet Williams—who would be warned for using obscenities—had somehow transformed herself and her game. She held at love for 3-2, opening and closing that game with aces. In the sixth game, Safarova had a game point, only to drive a forehand inches long. Williams applied the pressure to break for 4-2. She was unstoppable now, holding at 30 for 5-2, shouting “Come On!” almost incessantly, sensing the finish line. Safarova was not downcast, but she could not contain the highly charged Williams, who surged to 0-40. Safarova saved one match point but Williams drove one last scorching return crosscourt off the forehand that was unanswerable, and that was that. Williams triumphed 6-3, 6-7 (2), 6-2.
Safarova had given a stirring performance in her own right to get back into the match and put herself in a position to win it. She took control from the backcourt for a while and had Serena scrambling. She had success with the slice serve wide in the ad court and then served regularly to the forehand when Williams was suffering off that side. Safarova did herself proud in her debut at a major final.
In the end, however, Williams would not accept defeat, as had been the case all fortnight long. She has now succeeded in 20 of 24 major finals, losing only to her sister Venus (twice), Maria Sharapova and Sam Stosur. Skeptics could justifiably conclude that Williams will not escape at the remaining two majors of 2015, and therefore won’t win the Grand Slam. I disagree with that notion. She will inevitably raise her game on the lawns of the All England Club, and does not figure to get involved in so many dangerously close matches as she endured in Paris. By the end of the summer on the hard courts, she could well be peaking, especially if the Grand Slam is within her grasp.
Moreover, she still has no legitimate rival at the top of the women’s game. Williams is unequivocally the best woman player in the world, and no one can survive the way she can against the odds in so many important matches at major events. That is why I firmly believe she will join Connolly, Court and Graf in the women’s Grand Slam club, and somehow that would be fitting. Her competitiveness, determination and enduring championship spirit know no bounds.