Fifth seed Serena Williams takes on French outsider Virginie Razzano on Tuesday in her opening match at this year’s French Open, and any outcome other than a comfortable win for the American would constitute a huge upset.
Serena Williams is back, big time, and woe betide any opponent who underestimates the challenge facing them as they step out on court with the American. A 2012 clay-court record of 17 wins for zero losses speaks volumes for Serena’s chances at the French Open, as do a whole host of recent declarations from the 13-time Grand Slam champion.
Perhaps the most telling of those recent quotes is the one where the 30-year-old says “I love being on court right now. This is what I live for”. That rekindled desire, no doubt borne out of a realisation that her days at the very pinnacle of the sport are inevitably numbered, has been clear for all to see this year.
The passion was there in abundance in Madrid, where she disposed of world No.2 Maria Sharapova and world No.1 Victoria Azarenka by the same convincing scoreline, 6-1, 6-3, on the way to the title. It was there again in Rome until she had to withdraw at the semi-final stage, citing a lower back injury that should not hinder her here.
New game, new Serena
What is also evident this year is her new-found ability to adapt her game to clay. While her power-based style did carry her to one triumph here, fully a decade ago in 2002 – the year of her “Serena Slam” – the red dirt has never really suited the younger of the Williams sisters. Against opponents more adept at using the clay to their advantage (Justine Henin springs to mind), Williams often found herself unable to impose her hard-hitting game.
This year, the penny seems finally to have dropped, and Serena has made some all-important concessions that could see her pick up a second Suzanne Lenglen Trophy. These have included stepping up her fitness and changing her tactics, enabling her to show more patience, move opponents around and extend rallies that she would previously have been looking to conclude with winners come-what-may.
Providing she stays injury-free, Serena has to be a serious contender, despite all those years of failing to add to her one Roland Garros crown. You can apparently teach an older player new tricks, and it is refreshing to see a legend of the game striving for yet more improvement on a game that has brought her so many Grand Slam titles.
Fun gig for Razzano
Virginie Razzano would appear to be in for a testing time, but the French veteran will not mind. Playing in her 13th French Open no less, the world no.111 will enjoy every minute of her time on a show court in front of the fans who showed her such support and compassion last year when she played in the first round despite losing her fiancé and coach Stephane Vidal barely a week earlier.
The 29-year-old’s best years – notably 2009 when she made the second week here then at Wimbledon and rose to No.16 in the world only to be hampered by injuries – are probably behind her. With nothing to lose, the French Fed Cup stalwart will feel free to hit without pressure and hope for a Williams off-day.
That is unlikely, and Serena should ease her way into the tournament with a straight-sets win, to the delight of her fans.