Serena Williams’ relationship with the French Open has been rocky. She professes her love of Paris. She bought an apartment there. She may even be dating a Frenchman. But she was booed in 2003 as the defending champion after losing to Justine Henin in the semifinals following a quick handshake that stemmed from perceived gamesmanship from the Belgian.
That was the last time she made the semifinals until now. She lost in the quarterfinals to Jennifer Capriati in 2004 and Henin again in 2007. Those were understandable, given her opponents’ prowess on clay. But then came the weird losses. Katarina Srebotnik in the third round in 2008. Svetlana Kuznetsova in the 2009 quarterfinals. She couldn’t convert match points against Sam Stosur in 2010, again in the quarterfinals. And then last year, the stunning first-round loss to Virginie Razzano. It got to the point where you wanted to pull Williams aside and give her the tough truth: Maybe Paris is just not that into you.
And yet, she refused to give up the courtship.
“I have always felt really comfortable,” she said after her 6-0, 6-1 semifinal thrashing of 2012 runner-up Sara Errani. “I just haven’t done great. But I have always felt really good here.”
So what’s the difference this year?
“I didn’t lose in the first round,” she said, laughing.
Also different? Just how incredibly clean she’s been playing. Through six matches she’s hit 176 winners and 100 unforced errors, a whopping differential highlighted by her 46-minute takedown of Errani, where she hit 40 winners to just 12 unforced errors. There’s been a focus about Williams’ play throughout the tournament that’s been missing in previous years.
Even in the face of her biggest test, a 6-1, 3-6, 6-3 quarterfinal win over 2009 champion Kuznetsova, she didn’t panic. She didn’t allow her mind to wonder if, once again, the stars had aligned against her in Paris. Down a break in the third set, she steeled herself and won five straight games to advance.
Now she faces Maria Sharapova, whom Williams has beaten 12 consecutive times since 2004. It is only their third clash in a Grand Slam final, with Sharapova winning at Wimbledon in 2004 and Williams at the Australian Open in 2007. Despite her dominance over the 26-year-old Russian for almost nine years, Williams is taking nothing for granted.
“A different time, a different era, just a different match,” Williams said.
The two have never faced each other at Roland Garros, though Williams is 2-0 against Sharapova on red clay, most recently defeating her 6-1, 6-4 in Madrid last month. That match was supposed to be Sharapova’s best chance of snapping her losing streak to the 31-year-old American, but it wasn’t even close.
“Well, I’d be lying if [I said the losing streak] doesn’t bother me, obviously,” Sharapova said after defeating No. 3 Victoria Azarenka 6-1, 2-6, 6-4 in the semifinals. “I don’t think that it would be a pretty competitive statement if I said I didn’t. I would love to change that around.
“Obviously whatever I did in the past hasn’t worked, so I’ll have to try to do something different, and hopefully it will.”
This is a rivalry in name only. Williams and Sharapova top the women’s game in the rankings (though Sharapova will cede the No. 2 spot to Azarenka if she loses here). Over the last two years, Sharapova transformed what was seen as her worst surface to her best. Though she seems to have mastered the Parisian clay, Sharapova acknowledged that Williams is the favorite. Williams’ career-best 30-match winning streak has spanned the entire European clay season.
What can Sharapova do to become the first woman to defend a French Open title since Henin in 2007? In their last 12 matches, Sharapova has won only three sets off Williams, routinely getting, well, routined in straight sets. She will tap into her three-set loss to Williams in Miami in March, when she played a strong first set but couldn’t maintain that level under pressure, losing 4-6, 6-3, 6-0. In the face of Williams’ relentless pressure, which allows her to take destructive swings on Sharapova’s shaky second serve, Sharapova has struggled to either get out of the gate or maintain her level throughout.
“I have never really thought about going out on the court and just trying to be consistent, not playing my game and just getting the ball back,” Sharapova said. “That hasn’t really ever been my philosophy, because the way that I win matches is by being aggressive, by moving my power, by looking to move forward and playing that aggressive game.”
Indeed, Sharapova wins with all-out aggression. Her ability to red-line her groundstrokes and her serve and hit with little margin is the hallmark of her game. So are the unforced errors. In her most straightforward win of the tournament, her first-round match against Hsieh Su-Wei, she hit 19 unforced errors in a 6-1, 6-2 win. Her error counts for her next five wins: 28, 34, 20, 39, 45. In her last five matches she’s hit more unforced errors than winners. Can she get away with that against Williams? Only if she executes on the big points.
“Despite all those statistics, despite my unsuccessful record against her, it doesn’t matter because you’re at the French Open final,” Sharapova said. “No matter how good she’s playing, you also have to give yourself a bit of credit for getting to that point and doing a few things right to be at that stage and giving yourself an opportunity.
“Whether you take it, that’s another story. Obviously, though, I’ll be determined.”
Prediction: Williams in two sets.