May 26, 2013

Best ever? Game, set, match go to Williams

Those who ought to know say Serena Williams is the top female player ever, despite troubles in Paris.

By HOWARD FENDRICH The Associated Press

PARIS - In the moments immediately following her stunningly early exit from the 2012 French Open, as her eyes welled with tears and she bemoaned how she's "been through so much in my life," Serena Williams could not possibly find anything positive to take from the experience.

Serena Williams
click image to enlarge

Serena Williams

AP

FRENCH OPEN AT A GLANCE

WHERE: Roland Garros

SURFACE: Red clay

SCHEDULE: The 15-day tournament begins Sunday. The women's singles final is June 8; the men's singles final is June 9.

DEFENDING CHAMPS: Men -- Rafael Nadal, Spain; women -- Maria Sharapova, Russia

LAST YEAR: Nadal beat Novak Djokovic of Serbia 6-4, 6-3, 2-6, 7-5 for his record seventh French Open championship and 11th Grand Slam title overall. The loss ended Djokovic's 27-match winning streak at major tournaments and stopped his bid to become the first man since Rod Laver in 1969 with four consecutive Grand Slam titles. Sharapova defeated Sara Errani of Italy 6-3, 6-2 to complete a career Grand Slam, adding to her titles at Wimbledon in 2004, the U.S. Open in 2006 and the Australian Open in 2008.

KEY STATISTIC I: 52-1. That's Nadal's career record at the French Open. His only loss came in 2009 against Robin Soderling in the fourth round.

KEY STATISTIC II: 30. The number of years since a man from France (Yannick Noah, the father of current Chicago Bulls player Joakim Noah) won the country's major tennis tournament -- or any Grand Slam singles title.

PRIZE MONEY: Total is about $28.4 million, an increase of nearly 18 percent from 2012, with $1.9 million each to the men's and women's singles champions, an increase of 20 percent.

TELEVISION SUNDAY: 5 a.m., ESPN2; noon, NBC

How could she?

For the first and so far only time in her career, Williams lost her opening match at a Grand Slam tournament. Not merely that, but a woman many considered the favorite to leave with the title lost to a woman ranked 111th and with 20 first-round losses in 46 previous major championships. And surely adding to her disappointment, Williams lost after having been two points from victory against France's Virginie Razzano.

When the 31-year-old American returns to Court Philippe Chatrier to play Anna Tatishvili on Sunday -- the schedule for Day 1 of the 2013 French Open also features Williams' older sister, 30th-seeded Venus, and 17-time Grand Slam champion Roger Federer -- she will do so with a different understanding of what went wrong 12 months ago, and even a bit of appreciation for the disappointing result.

"Sometimes I think, 'Should I be happy that I lost last year?' You never know what can happen in your career and why things happen," said Williams, who is ranked and seeded No. 1 in singles and got a wild card Saturday to play doubles with her sister. "So it's been great for me just realizing that every match counts."

At that point she paused, perhaps hearing her own words and what they implied.

"I have always realized that," Williams continued, "but also realizing what I need to do to get better and to stay on top and to be, you know, the best tennis player that I can be."

Rare is the professional athlete, no matter the sport, who readily acknowledges taking victory for granted against a supposedly inferior opponent. That, though, is what it sounded like Williams was doing.

There are, to be sure, other explanations for what she has done on the court since that defeat: good health, which her mother, Oracene Price, calls the biggest single contributor to Williams' recent success; working with a new coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, who directed her training session Saturday on Court Suzanne Lenglen; and what Williams sums up as "really just staying relaxed and calm" during matches.

But it certainly can't hurt to take every match seriously, including against players such as Tatishvili, who is 2-10 this year, 0-2 at the French Open for her career and never been ranked better than 50th.

"You just have to always ... be ready to play," Williams said, "and expect anything."

So now she is back at the French Open, which she won in 2002, and is playing as well as, or perhaps even better than, ever. Williams is on a 24-match winning streak, part of a 36-2 record with a tour-leading five titles this season. Since that loss to Razzano, Williams is 67-3, including championships at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open that boosted her career haul to 15 Grand Slam titles.

With three more, Williams would match Hall of Fame members Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert at 18.

Evert thinks Williams will eventually surpass that total, and continue climbing up the list that Margaret Smith Court leads with 24 major championships, followed by Steffi Graf's 22 and Helen Wills Moody's 19.

"It's still a reachable goal for her to win 22 and match Steffi," Evert said. "If she plays another two, three, four years healthy, she can break all those records."

Evert, who will analyze French Open matches on TV for ESPN2, took her assessment of Williams a step further.

(Continued on page 2)

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