For all her singles titles on the grass at Wimbledon – seven of them – Serena Williams can still thrive on clay, despite its challenges.
The surface known as “terre battue” in French softens power games and has a way of extending battles, which can create problems, especially at late stages of careers.
On a blustery day in Paris on Monday, Williams looked in danger of losing in the opening round at the tournament for a second time, before defeating 83rd-ranked Vitalia Diatchenko of Russia 2-6 6-1 6-0 for her 800th main-draw professional win.
Such comebacks have been a hallmark of Williams’ unprecedented career. But showing rust in just her 10th match of 2019 – against the same opponent who stunned Maria Sharapova at Wimbledon last year – Williams appeared more vulnerable than usual.
Ultimately she came through it during a stretch of the campaign Williams usually enjoys.
The French Open buildup tournament of Rome, for example, holds special memories – husband Alexis Ohanian first met and proposed to her in the Italian capital – and Williams has long owned an apartment in Paris. She likes competing on clay, too.
But that’s not to say things have gone entirely smoothly for Williams at Roland Garros.
Of the American’s open era record 23 majors, only three have come at the French Open.
And the only time in three decades Williams ever lost a first-round grand slam match came at the same venue in 2012 against France’s Virginie Razzano.
Turned it around
Williams admitted to more nerves than usual and having “concrete blocks on my feet,” which could explain Monday’s first set.
The manner however in which she dominated the final two sets is promising for the 37-year-old, who is seeking to match Margaret Court’s all-time record of 24 grand slams and dually win her first as a mom.
She will certainly hope to complete a second match, something she has failed to do at any tournament since January’s Australian Open.
A knee injury or illness ruled her out at Indian Wells, Miami and Rome, where the knee problem scuppered a meeting with older sister Venus. Her pivotal ankle sprain at the Australian Open got the injury ball rolling and Williams said “everything went downhill from there.”
A year after wearing a catsuit that displeased tournament officials – there were medical reasons for the outfit – Williams donned a zebra printed outfit on center court that eventually required a sweat top due to a dip in temperatures. A cape that went with it before the match had the words “mother, champion, queen, goddess.”
“Those are things that mean a lot to me and reminders for me and for everyone that wants to wear it,” she said. “Just remind everyone that they can be champions and are queens. So I love that about it.
“And I don’t know, my super power today was just hanging in there and staying positive for once.”
Williams appeared hot under the collar with some of her 14 unforced errors in the first set but in the last two combined for 20 winners and a mere 10 unforced errors.
A roar and stomp of the foot after making one error at the start of the second set might have sparked the turnaround.
“I just was so frustrated at that point, because I have been training well,” she continued to reporters. “The past week and a half has been really good and it was like, ‘This isn’t the Serena I have been practicing with or that I see every day.
“I just let out this roar, and here I am.”
The famous Williams serve kicked in too, resulting in just three dropped points behind her first serve in the final two frames.
Assuming Williams adequately recovers physically, it is difficult to envisage either Kurumi Nara or Dalila Jakupovic – their match was suspended due to darkness – ousting her in the second round. Greater tests could await in round three, through either Canadian Bianca Andreescu or another North American enjoying a breakout season, American Sofia Kenin.
Williams has her sights set on a deeper stay.
“There is only one way for me to enjoy it here. I don’t enjoy places when I don’t win, so that’s why I like playing in all four Grand Slams,” she said.
Kvitova, Wozniacki out
As Williams focused on staying healthy on the court, another tournament contender, Petra Kvitova, pulled out ahead of her tussle with Sorana Cirstea due to a forearm injury.
Then former world No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki departed in three sets to Diatchenko’s countrywoman, Veronika Kudermetova, 0-6 6-3 6-3.
Wozniacki and another former No. 1, Angelique Kerber – downed Sunday by a Russian, Anastasia Potapova – faced a race against time to play at Roland Garros due to calf and ankle injuries, respectively, so their departures weren’t entirely surprising.
Rafael Nadal or Novak Djokovic leaving proceedings in the first round would have counted as gigantic shocks but they both progressed, over Germany’s Yannick Hanfmann (6-2 6-1 6-3) and Hubert Hurkacz (6-4 6-2 6-2).
On paper the 44th-ranked Hurkacz presented a tough test but the Serb clinically dispatched the fast-rising Pole. Last year’s finalist, Dominic Thiem, trailed American Tommy Paul 4-0 in a key third-set tiebreak but stormed back for a more difficult 6-4 4-6 7-6 (7-5) 6-2 win on his favored Suzanne Lenglen court.
It is still early going at Roland Garros but there was little to suggest from Monday’s performances that Djokovic – bidding to win four straight majors for a second time – and 11-time champion Nadal won’t face off in the final in under two weeks.
Williams wasn’t as convincing – but no one dares count her out.