Serena's stepping stone

Serena's stepping stone

A defeat in the first round of the French Open last year spurred the American to greater heights

Serena's stepping stone

Close to a year later, it remains a challenge to look at Court Philippe Chatrier quite the same way. The world’s most prominent rectangle of red clay has staged many a tennis drama in the Paris spring: major French Open upsets and major French Open victories.

But if Serena Williams can truly surrender a big lead and lose in the first round to a French wild card ranked No 111, then there must be some strange and potent forces at work here indeed.

“Ah yes, there were lots of things mixed together out there,” said Virginie Razzano, the French wild card in question. “What’s clear is that I was not alone on the court last year against Serena.”

That was a reference to her fiance, Stephane Vidal, who had died in May 2011 and who was in her thoughts during the match.

What makes Razzano’s 4-6, 7-6 (7-5), 6-3 victory seem all the more improbable, though, is what has happened since. Williams has stormed back to the No 1 ranking at age 31, winning 10 tournaments, including two more Grand Slam singles titles and two Olympic gold medals, and will arrive at Roland Garros riding a 24-match winning streak. She has lost just three matches in total since last year’s French Open, compiling a 67-3 record.
Razzano, meanwhile, has won just three tour-level matches. Once ranked as high as 16, she has struggled with a hip problem and other ailments, and her ranking has dropped to 178: too low for her to even get into qualifying tournaments at many WTA events.

Now 30 years old, she said her goal was a return to the top 20. But Razzano has again required a wild card from the French Tennis Federation to play in the French Open.

Razzano said she and Williams had not spoken since their match but that she had spotted Williams twice: at Wimbledon last year and then again at the US Open. Razzano said Williams gave her dark looks on both occasions, something Williams does not recall.
“It’s true that she looked at me with far from friendly eyes,” Razzano said. “I understand. If I put myself in her place I could understand that. It’s something very hard to digest. I think she had a hard time. I don’t know if she’s better. I think she is. Her tennis certainly is all better.

“But I don’t have a bad feeling or relationship with her. In 2011, she came up to me in the gym at Wimbledon after I lost Stephane and she gave me her condolences and we talked for five or 10 minutes.

“If she wants to talk to me again one day, I’d be open to it, but that will depend only on her.”

Williams did not sound bitter in a recent interview. “She’s such a strong woman,” Williams said. “I wasn’t happy for her at that point because I was going through my own thing. My struggles seemed bigger than hers at the time of the French Open, but I also was happy for her to do well.”

The upset in Paris changed both their lives. Razzano said her fellow French citizens were still congratulating her in the streets. But it has had the biggest effect on Williams, who was so dispirited by her shock loss that she ended up ripping up her career-long playbook and eventually joining forces with a coach outside her family: the Frenchman Patrick Mouratoglou.

“For sure, definitely, it forced me to make choices I wouldn’t normally have made,” she said. “You go down a path and something comes and you have to make a left or a right. I thought I was going to be able to keep straight but I didn’t. So I was forced to make a left or a right.”

There was, however, more than a little coincidence involved. Mouratoglou, who has worked with players like Marcos Baghdatis, Grigor Dimitrov and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, owns and operates an academy in the Paris suburb of Thiverval-Grignon. But he had very little contact with Williams before the loss to Razzano.

“We were basically acquaintances,” Williams said. “I texted him and told him, ‘I need a place to hit.’ He said I could hit at his academy, and I’m like, ‘Man, I don’t want to go all the way out there. Can you give me a guy and I can hit in Paris?' And he’s like, ‘Well, I can find you someone, but it’s more private at the academy and blah, blah, blah.' And I was like, ‘Well, I don’t have anything else to do, so I’ll go hit at the academy.' It was just, none of it was expected.”

Once on site at the Mouratoglou Tennis Academy, Williams pounded balls with a fury in an attempt to exorcise some of the demons of her loss to Razzano: the only first-round loss of her career in a Grand Slam singles match.
Mouratoglou only observed quietly at first, but eventually Williams asked him for some input. Mouratoglou said one of the first things she asked about was the Razzano match. “I said, ‘You didn’t make a shot on balance,”' Mouratoglou said. “She was off balance all the time.”
That has been a recurring theme when Williams struggles under pressure. Apparently tight with the tension, she lunges, launching her full-force ground strokes from awkward positions. There are splayed fingers, hyper-taut muscles, pirouettes on a single shoe after errors. “When you are balanced in life, you are more balanced on the court,” Mouratoglou said.
Still informal at Wimbledon last year, where Williams won the title, the coaching arrangement now has become formal. Williams, who still has an apartment in Paris, has trained regularly with Mouratoglou and his team and took part in their preseason camp in Mauritius. Her French is improving and her tennis, to those who have watched her for years, has rarely been better than it was when she won the title in Rome last week with the loss of no sets and just 14 games in the tournament.

It was her first victory there since 2002, which also happens to be the year she won her only singles title at the French Open. In Paris, there have been injuries, absences and tough losses to the likes of Sam Stosur, Svetlana Kuznetsova and her former rival Justin Henin. There have been unexpected implosions like her third-round loss to Katarina Srebotnik in 2008.

But she has never had a loss as unexpected as the one against Razzano. Her Roland Garros scar tissue is now even thicker, which very likely means that the most important conflict to resolve on the clay in Paris is internal not external.

“The lady in the mirror is the ultimate opponent for me,” Williams said last week of the French Open.

Razzano sounds delighted that it is someone else’s turn.
“For me, I’m turning the page,” Razzano said. “Last year was great, but this is a new Roland Garros for me, too.”

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