On the eve of this final, Serena Williams was suffering so badly with flu that she considered pulling out. Twenty-four hours later, after putting her body and mind through the mill one more time, she emerged with a 20th grand slam title thanks to a 6-3, 6-7 (2-7), 6-2 victory over the Czech Lucie Safarova that, even by her standards, was remarkable.
The American is now two short of Steffi Graf, the open era leader, and four off Margaret Court, the all-time leader. Having won the Australian Open at the start of the year, Williams is also halfway to the coveted calendar year grand slam and, after winning here despite struggling with the flu for much of the second week, few would put it past her adding Wimbledon and the US Open to complete the set. “It’s been a dream for me,” she said.
At 33, Williams is at an age when most players have either retired or are well past their best. Only Martina Navratilova, who presented Williams with the trophy, was older when winning a grand slam title (at Wimbledon in 1990) but it would take a brave person to believe that her third French Open win will be the last of her major victories. She remains as motivated as ever and her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, put her dedication down to her love of playing, saying she “senses she can dominate tennis and win majors”.
Her win over Safarova was her fifth three-set victory of a tournament that was a struggle almost from day one. Facing defeat against Anna-Lena Friedsam,Victoria Azarenka, Sloane Stephens and Safarova, who was appearing in her first grand slam final, she willed herself to victory, determined not to let a chance of a title go by.
After letting slip a 6-3, 4-1, 40-15 lead to allow Safarova into a decider, she trailed 2-0 before ripping through the last six games. “I just couldn’t find any weapon that could stop her,” Safarova said. “I was trying to mix up the serve, trying to mix up the rhythm, trying to go for risky shots. But when she was on, she was just serving amazing and going for the returns, pressuring me right away. It’s just hard to do anything with that.”
Safarova is not the first to experience that feeling. Williams is now 20-4 in grand slam singles finals and whenever she is in trouble, she invariably finds a way. Mouratoglou, whose association with Williams has now yielded seven grand slam titles, said her victory was second only to her 2012 Wimbledon title. “That was a miracle,” he said. “It was when we had just started working together and she hadn’t won a grand slam for two years. She had lost in the first round of the French Open and she had no confidence.
“Here, she was extremely sick, she had no energy but she has lost only one match since November so the confidence is really high and she could use it to turn the match around. She didn’t have anything to use at Wimbledon but her fighting [spirit]. But Roland Garros 2015 was super-difficult and she made an incredible job by winning it. I was so impressed so many times with what she did.”
After coughing and spluttering her way through her semi-final, Williams had been too ill to practise on Friday and was even doubled-over at times when she had a gentle hit a couple of hours before the final. But by the time she stepped on to Court Philippe Chatrier she looked much more like her normal self, with one backhand down the line in the opening game setting the tone.
A massive forehand return gave her a break in the fourth game and, after easing through the set, she broke twice on her way to that lead in the second. Out of nowhere, nerves crept in and, after two double faults gave Safarova one break back, another one handed her the other. Williams regained her poise to break for 6-5 and at 30-15 she was two points from victory. But Safarova, sensing her chance, went for broke and forced a tie-break before winning it 7-2 to earn a decider.
By this stage, Williams was letting rip with a string of swear words and her mood only darkened when she was broken in the second game as Safarova led 2-0. But one good service game righted the ship and when the Czech double-faulted to hand back the break, they were level at 2-2. From then on, despite a warning for swearing, Williams pulled away and two breaks gave her another title.
Victory at Wimbledon would give Williams another “Serena Slam” – four consecutive wins in a non-calendar year – for the second time in her career, having first done it in 2002-03. Should she go on to win the US Open, she would become the fourth woman in history to win all four grand slams in the same calendar year.
For Mouratoglou, at least, it is achievable. “She’s won two, so why not? That’s probably the most difficult thing to do in tennis so that would be something incredible. It’s going to be very difficult, but it’s possible.”