French Open 2019: What can we expect from three-time Roland Garros winner Serena Williams on tricky claycourt?

It goes without saying that Serena Williams has firmly cemented her presence as GOAT. With Grand Slams, Premier, and Premier Mandatory titles – at every possible level, on every surface tennis can be played on, Williams truly is the all-surface queen. She is on the cusp of levelling the record for the all-time highest Grand Slams, already sharing the Open Era record, and is the only player to have a record – the Serena Slam, named after her. That’s when a player wins all four Grand Slams in a row, and Williams has done it twice over.

 French Open 2019: What can we expect from three-time Roland Garros winner Serena Williams on tricky claycourt?

File image of Serena Williams. AP

Recently, however, talk around Williams’ fitness ahead of the French Open has reached an all-time high, particularly in the wake of her withdrawal from the Italian Open, just ahead of her second-round match-up against sister Venus. That tournament marked the third withdrawal in a row from the 23-time Grand Slam winner, who pulled out of Indian Wells this year, down a set to Garbine Muguruza, in Miami right after a first-round win against Rebecca Peterson, and again in Italy after defeating Peterson.

Although she is not the favourite to win the tournament at Roland Garros, especially given what is allegedly a constant knee injury, the fact is that Williams is the most successful player at the French Open in this year’s field. Her win-loss percentage at the French Open is 28-4, at a very high 87.5 percent. Williams has three titles here to her name – in 2002, and then in 2013 and 2015.

But Williams has not played on clay in some time. Last year, the former No 1 withdrew from Roland Garros with an injured pectoral muscle, and now, going into Roland Garros, her knee.

She has this year played a sum total of two matches on clay, of her total of nine matches. Building an exact track record for the American, particularly this year, when she has admitted to “wanting to play more” but her body “not cooperating”.

In 2018, soon after her return from the birth of her child, Williams was already looking in strong nick; she made the finals of Wimbledon and the US Open. But even before those two tournaments, she had already looked strong at Roland Garros, making a fair run through with wins over Kristyna Pliskova, and then Julia Goerges, Ashleigh Barty and set up a match against one of her most constant competitors, Maria Sharapova, prior to which she withdrew with a pectoral injury.

This year, Williams began the season on a fairly strong note. Back on the hard courts in Australia after a two-year gap, she progressed to the quarter-finals dropping only a single set, and beating World No 1 Simona Halep along the way.

Despite her retirement at Indian Wells, Williams did, in fact, make short work of Victoria Azarenka in Round 1 of that tournament, and certainly, one can never doubt her ability to hit against the best – form or otherwise.

The truth is that this year, however, Williams has just not played enough matches to be truly sure if she will be able to fire. If we were to go solely by her Grand Slam prowess in 2019, it bodes well for the three-time French Open winner. She did not play a single match between her US Open final last year and the Australian Open this year, so banking tournaments may not necessarily be a factor that rules out Williams.

Although Williams’ serve is not best suited to clay, and her track record this year has been non-existent, she still will not worry too much.

Going into her last two titles:

2013

In 2013, Williams’ run up to her second of her three French Open titles was preceded by first, a title defence at the Family Circle Cup, followed by her 50th career title at the Mutua Madrid Open, where she defeated Maria Sharapova in the final. She went on to win the trophy at the Italian Open right after, and entered Roland Garros that year having not lost a single match on clay through the season. That season, Williams was 28-0 on the clay by the end of the French Open.

2015

However, in the lead up to her third French Open title, in 2015, Williams had a less than stellar clay season. Although she had a couple of Fed Cup rubbers won on clay, Williams went into Madrid on shaky ground. Although she completely controlled clay-court specialist Carla Suarez Navarro in the quarter-finals there, she was outclassed in the semi-finals in straight sets by Petra Kvitova – who, incidentally, is in fine nick this season.

She proceeded to Round 3 of the Italian Open after this, but withdrew from the tournament with an injury prior to her next match.

Despite what seemed like a relatively grim record on the clay, Williams was in top fighting form at Roland Garros, and proceeded to put up tough contests against Victoria Azarenka, Sloane Stephens and Timea Bacsinszky, before facing difficult opposition in the first-time finalist Lucie Safarova. Despite the Czech having dominated the tiebreak, Williams took back control to close out the match for what would then be her 20th Grand Slam title.

The lack of wins in recent times will not particularly trouble Serena Williams but what will likely trouble her more is the lack of competitive gameplay on the clay in the past month. What may also be a bigger issue is her open confession of a struggle with her knee. Particularly against opponents who have been pushing rivals around on the court on clay this year, this could well pose a problem even for Williams, who is widely considered, and not without reason, one of the most athletic tennis players in history.

Williams will go into Roland Garros seeded 10th, meaning that she will not have the luxury of an easy draw ahead of her either. She will also be up against a field with some players who are not just powerful on clay, but currently in the form of their lives – case in point Kiki Bertens and Karolina Pliskova, who are each off fresh titles and finals this year.

Sizing up the competition: Williams vs the others

This year, her biggest competition on clay will come in the form of Karolina Pliskova, Simona Halep, Kiki Bertens and Naomi Osaka. Pliskova and Williams have never met on clay before, and stand dead even in their overall history. Halep is one competitor that, despite her form, Williams will not be perturbed. The American leads the pair’s head-to-head at 9-1. The pair have only met once on clay at the 2013 Rome Masters, a tournament that Serena won without dropping a single set.

Bertens may be a tough call for Williams; she has taken the American to tiebreaks each of the three times they have played, although Williams has defeated the Dutchwoman the only time they met on clay at the 2016 French Open.

Should they meet at Roland Garros, however, it is Osaka that might worry Williams the most. The former No 1 and the current No 1 have only met twice on court so far – with the younger player winning both times. They are yet to play each other on clay, but with a possible “revenge’ match from last year’s marred US Open final, this could be a contentious match.

But if anyone knows how to craft a comeback and find a win during the seemingly impossible, it is Williams. Winning a Grand Slam without dropping a set is difficult enough but Williams made it look like a cakewalk, who achieved the feat whilst two months pregnant. Back onto the Grand Slam stage and making two finals less than a year after the birth of her child, too, Williams is the starkest, most obvious example of resilience and fighting spirit you could find.

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Updated Date: May 24, 2019 12:04:28 IST