Thursday, May 28, 2009

Serena Williams survives the first round in Paris

Serena Williams returns to Klara Zakopalova during their first-round match at the French Open on Tuesday.
Reporting from Paris -- Normally Serena Williams exhibits all the nervousness of a shark in a goldfish pond, so her confession of jitters here illuminates a French Open task she labels "uphill."

It's no wonder she hopped up and down on the Court Suzanne Lenglen after her 2 1/2 -hour, first-round squeaker in the wind Tuesday afternoon, considering her 2009 clay-court preparation amounted to three tournaments, two countries, zero wins, three losses and one retirement.

As she moves toward her remarkable 38th second round in 38 Grand Slam tournaments, this clunky preparation didn't mean much, for this is a 27-year-old who has the phoenix routine down well enough to have once won an Australian Open from 81st in the rankings.

Sure, her 6-3, 6-7 (5), 6-4 endurance over 100th-ranked Klara Zakopalova may have forged the only suspense of a rainy and chilly day when the other top-fivers -- Novak Djokovic, Juan Martin Del Potro, Svetlana Kuznetsova, Jelena Jankovic -- won breezily.

Still, it's not necessarily foreboding that Williams said, "I played junior tennis or even worse."

It's far from unprecedented that she said, "Couldn't you tell how tortured I was? I think my face said it all."

Her frowns and grimaces through a match that took her nine match points to win might not say anything more than her mother Oracene's big laugh from the stands after Williams couldn't convert on the fourth match point following a 30-shot rally longer than a French lunch. Eighteen three-setters dot the 70 wins of Williams' 10 Grand Slam titles, and it's a wide-open women's game even if she hasn't graced so much as a semifinal in this clay pit since 2003.

"I think Serena will be playing better and better each round, so it was the best chance to at least play with her or beat her," Zakopalova said.

Williams' father and co-coach Richard Williams, having watched as his ex-wife wore a winter coat and the crowd dressed in veritable Big Ten football garb, even brought up Julia Mae Williams, the highest praise he can offer.

His late mother "wouldn't let all the evil forces of hell stop her," Richard Williams said, and "didn't believe in turning around or giving up or giving in." She died "the first Sunday of May in 1985," he said, "and I haven't had two good days since then."

What he saw Tuesday, he said, "was a champion that found a way to win on a day that she didn't play good. In order to be a champion you have to win when you should lose."

And what were the thoughts of the No. 2 player in the world, the reigning U.S. and Australian Open champion, the player who most everyone -- including herself -- reckons is really No. 1?

More than anything, "I just wanted to win a match on clay," Williams said. Imagine.

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