PARIS (AP) — For a decade, the French Open has presented more problems for Serena Williams than any of the other Grand Slam tournaments.
Her collection of 15 major championships includes five from Wimbledon, five from the Australian Open, four from the U.S. Open ... and one from Roland Garros.
Ever since she beat her sister in the 2002 final in Paris, starting a run of four consecutive titles at tennis’ most important events, one thing or another has prevented Williams from a second French Open trophy. She’d love to change that by beating defending champion Maria Sharapova in Saturday’s final.
“It would be awesome for me,” Williams said. “I don’t think there’s anything that can describe how happy I would be.”
When asked whether she now feels comfortable on the tournament’s red clay courts, Williams replied: “Incidentally, I have always felt really comfortable. I just haven’t done great.”
Her history at the tournament has been filled with tough times and earlier-than-expected departures.
In 2003, her 33-match Grand Slam winning streak ended with a three-set loss to Justine Henin in a semifinal marked by Henin’s gamesmanship, a mean-spirited crowd that cheered Williams’ faults, and the American’s post-match tears.
In 2004, Williams lost in three sets to Jennifer Capriati in the quarterfinals, the same round that saw her bid adieu in 2007 (against Henin again), 2009 (Svetlana Kuznetsova) and 2010 (Sam Stosur). Williams lost in the third round in 2008, and missed the French Open in 2005, 2006 and 2010 with various health problems.
Last year brought the most surprising defeat of all, against 111th-ranked Virginie Razzano of France, the only first-round exit for Williams in 51 career Grand Slam appearances.
“She was so mad,” Williams’ mother, Oracene Price, recalled Thursday.
Instead of sulking, Williams got right back to work, sticking around Paris — where she owns an apartment — and training at coach Patrick Moratouglou’s tennis academy. How did that work out? Well, since that Razzano match, Williams is 73-3, with titles at Wimbledon, the U.S. Open, the London Olympics and the WTA Championships last season, along with a tour-leading five titles so far in 2013. At 31, she is the oldest woman to be ranked No. 1.
For the first time in 11 years, Williams is back in the French Open final.
“Obviously, she’s in form,” Sharapova said. “She’s playing some of the best tennis of her career.”
And, by the sounds of support from the stands these two weeks, Williams has earned some new fans along the way. In addition to her French abode, and her French coach, she’s been speaking the local language during her on-court interviews after matches, a surefire way to endear herself to French hearts.
“The fact that she feels the crowd is behind her makes a lot of difference,” Moratouglou said. “She feels a bit special now here, and I think in the past she never did. I mean, it was a Grand Slam, so for sure she had a lot of respect for Roland Garros, but it was not the same.”
Her play these two weeks has been mostly magnifique.
Putting aside a three-set struggle against 2009 champion Kuznetsova in the quarterfinals — which Moratouglou said made Williams “feel the danger for a moment” and Price said “shook her up a little bit” — the American has dropped a total of 11 games across her other five matches.
Williams won her 30th consecutive match, a personal best and the longest single-season streak by a woman since 2000, in Thursday’s semifinals, beating Sara Errani of Italy 6-0, 6-1. Williams produced a 40-2 edge in winners, hit serves topping 120 mph, pounded 10 return winners, and even mixed in some volleys and a perfect drop shot.
“Unbelievable,” Errani said.
Especially when you consider that Errani is ranked No. 5, was the runner-up to Sharapova a year ago, and has reached the semifinals at three of the past five major tournaments.
Now the No. 2-ranked Sharapova will see what she can do against Williams.
Back in 2004, Sharapova, still only 17 and relatively unknown at the time, stunned Williams — and the tennis world — by winning their Wimbledon final in straight sets. Four months later, Sharapova beat Williams again, this time in the final of the season-ending WTA Championships.
They’ve played each other 12 times since — on grass, hard and clay courts; indoors and outdoors; at tournaments large and small — and Williams is 12-0 in those matches, taking 24 of their 27 sets in that span.
“Whatever I did in the past hasn’t worked,” Sharapova said, “so I’ll have to try to do something different.”
For years, whatever Williams did in Paris didn’t work. So far, so good, this time.