Serena Williams: A Remarkable Comeback After a Grand Slam Setback.TS hung

Serena Williams says she will be happy even if she never wins another tennis match and yet win is all she seems to do. Four of the past six grand slam singles titles, 107 of her past 112 matches and 29 of 34 in her career against her two closest pursuers, Victoria Azarenka and Maria Sharapova. Virginie Razzano has a lot to answer for.

It was Razzano, after all, who unwittingly restarted all this at the 2012 French Open by inflicting the American’s first – and only – opening-round grand slam loss.

Linda Pearce and Scott Spits preview the women’s competition at the Australian Open 2014. Who will win and how will the Aussies fare after a tough draw?

Williams’ despair prompted an urgent career reboot with the help of her now coach Patrick Mouratoglou. Collectively, the women’s tour as a Serena-challenging force has not recovered.

For Williams, then, how distant does the Razzano debacle seem, given what has happened since?

Serena Williams: "Sometimes I definitely get a little worked-up still, but I just try to get through those moments."
Serena Williams: “Sometimes I definitely get a little worked-up still, but I just try to get through those moments.”Credit: AP

”It definitely does seem like a long time ago but, at the same time, it’s something that happened not so long ago and I keep it in the forefront of my mind,” she says.

Things changed after that distressing defeat, a memory that still lingers, and women’s tennis has never really been the same since.

”The Razzano match showed Serena what she could not do ever again if she was going to be successful and that was to emotionally fall apart,” says Australian commentator Rennae Stubbs, who was calling the Roland Garros match courtside.

”I was right in the eye line of her player box and I saw every facet of frustration, I saw every facial expression and I pretty much heard every word out of her mouth that day and it was so incredibly negative, she was so anxious, she was so tough on herself and it was really hard to see such a great champion literally look like her career was ending.


”I mean, it really looked like she would not recover from that match, just the way she handled the whole moment. It was almost like, for the first time in her career, she had doubt that she was good enough, especially on the red clay.

”I think Virginie Razzano will look back on that day as the greatest day in her tennis career – and it could have been anyone – but it was almost as if the world was giving her back something after the death of her fiance [in 2011].”

Williams went on to claim her fifth Wimbledon crown a month later, then backed up with yet another major at the 2012 US Open.

Last year, Williams suffered an ankle injury at Melbourne Park before a quarter-final exit, and a shock fourth-round loss to Sabine Lisicki at Wimbledon to end a 34-win streak, but claimed a second French Open at her most testing major venue and a sixth championship at Flushing Meadows.

Her grand slam singles tally stands at 17 – five behind open era leader Steffi Graf and one adrift of fellow greats Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova.

A heavy favourite to win a sixth Australian Open title on Saturday week, the 32-year-old says she is still motivated most of all by the grand slams but is no longer thinking solely of them.

”History obviously means a lot,” Williams says. ”It never started out, I didn’t play for history, I just played to win titles and to be No.1 and to win the US Open. I never thought of numbers or anything like that, but it’s pretty awesome. It’s building up to be something I never in my mind thought about before.”

And an 18th, which Navratilova considers almost a formality? Pencil her in. No, actually, make that ink.

”She can get to 22 if she stays healthy and motivated,” Evert told the WTA website of Graf’s record. ”If she gets to 18, I wouldn’t feel like she’s in good company but Martina and I are in good company.”

Ditto, Navratilova says.

”It’s just a matter of time before she passes us,” she says. ”Four or five years ago, I didn’t think she would get there but the last couple of years she’s really caught up. And I think she can go into the 20s the way she’s playing and feeling. The sky’s really the limit for her. Also, more power to her that she can keep doing it into her 30s. That’s what’s most impressive to me.”

”It’s so close but yet so far away,” insists Williams, who has repeatedly brushed aside suggestions she can exceed the slam record holder, Australian Margaret Court’s 24. This time Williams plays Australian wildcard Ashleigh Barty in the opening round.

”Eighteen, it’s such an exciting prospect,” Williams says. ”When you think of greats, you think of Martina Navratilova or Chris Evert and, for me, that’s crazy, that’s really crazy.”

So, at times, is Williams, who famously threatened to ram a ball down a lineswoman’s throat in the 2009 US Open semi-final against Kim Clijsters and has often said she is playing better now that she is calmer and more relaxed.

”Sometimes I definitely get a little worked up still but I just try to get through those moments,” she says.

Relaxed? Serena? ”That’s a lie,” laughs her friend Stubbs. ”I think she feels that she’s accomplished incredible things and that she doesn’t have to prove anything any more.

”She’s spent her whole career trying to prove people wrong – like her [2007] Australian Open victory when even she [said she] wasn’t fit enough but she still won the tournament.

”But she’s at the point now where she truly knows that she belongs in the story of the greatest players of all time and I think that takes off a little bit of pressure. And the same goes for winning the French Open last year – having now said she’s won that twice and not just once, because a lot of people would probably say ‘that’s not good enough’. But she walks onto the court and is nervous every time and she’s fired up every time.”

She is also, apparently, happy and settled in her personal life with Mouratoglou, the urbane Frenchman the star likens to the man behind a film camera. She gives him abundant credit for her dominant 18 months and the renovated lobby area of his academy on the Paris outskirts displays the major trophies won during their successful collaboration. ”If you think of a director directing actors, he’s really good at that,” Williams says. ”We work really well together. I have the ideas and he kinda turns my ideas into something that could actually work. So I’m always like ‘we need to do this, we need to do this, we need to work on this, let’s work on this’ and he’s just like ‘OK, well, let’s try to pick some of this and let’s try to do some of that’.”

To Stubbs, a content Williams means a less anxious one, which is essential for a player whose on-court persona reflects her personality.

”She comes from the streets, man, and that’s how she fights on the court,” says the former doubles star. ”She’s had to fight that way her whole life because her older sister was always seen as the better one, until everybody saw that Serena was really technically the better player and more dogged, more determined.” Williams’ father, Richard, remains a guiding influence. The pair worked closely in the off-season while Mouratoglou was busy with academy business and Williams, in Florida, helped interview candidates to run her clothing company, Aneres. She called Richard, her original coach, for reassurance and advice several times from the US Open and went on to beat Azarenka in a three-set final that turned a great year into an extraordinary one.

Remarkably, Williams has also improved every aspect of her game since turning 30, according to retired great Lindsay Davenport, including her defence, patience and the options she can call upon when plan A is not going exactly as she would like. Mouratoglou says Williams’ greater mental intensity and consistency have helped her cope with the pressure that comes with being expected to win every tournament she enters and favoured in every match she plays.

A measure of Williams’ dominance is the number of 6-0 sets she won last year: 24 compared with 11 the previous season.

”I saw that stat,” Williams says. ”That was crazy, really weird.”

Does it tell her that she is crushing people? ”I don’t know,” she says. ”I’m thinking ‘how am I getting all these love sets?’ I don’t remember half of ’em. I only remember a handful.”

The world No.1 insists, however, that she does not live in the past and so touches only briefly on the fact that, after winning five Australian Opens in eight years, she missed 2011 after suffering a life-threatening pulmonary embolism and then sustained ankle injuries that contributed to a fourth-round loss in 2012 and that earlier-than-expected quarter-final exit last year. At least, she says, she is heading in the right direction, so she should be good for a semi-final this time. But, clearly, anything less than the title would be nowhere near good enough.

”We’ll see. No pressure, no stress,” Williams says, as if trying to convince herself. ”I don’t have to win another match and I’ll be happy. So I’m good.”

And if she didn’t, where would she go first, what would she do?

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