PARIS – No. 1 Serena Williams will go for her 20th major title on Saturday at the French Open. Standing in her way are Slam final debutante Lucie Safarova, ranked No. 13—and Williams' own body. The American has been under the weather in Paris and struggled physically as she staved off another upset bid in the semifinals, rebounding to beat No. 23 Timea Bacsinszky by reeling off the last 10 games of the match.
Williams postponed her mandatory post-match press conference on Thursday in order to see a tournament doctor. "I'm actually not sure how I got through the match and when it was over I just kind of collapsed," Williams said in a statement released on Friday afternoon. "I couldn't move. I saw the tournament doctor on site and since I came home I've been resting." She did not return to Roland Garros on Friday for practice and says it's "some kind of flu" that she's hoping to sweat out.
"I need time and obviously don't have a lot of it but it helps that I can be at my apartment and have my family and friends with me," she said.
Will Serena be healthy enough to compete at a good level on Saturday? What has been clear throughout her two weeks in Paris is that she hasn't had to be her best at all. In four of her six matches she has started poorly, dropping the first set to No. 105 Anna-Lena Friedsam, Victoria Azarenka, Sloane Stephens and Bacsinszky. In each match she found her best level—or at least a good enough level—to finish strong and win in three sets. Her ability to turn these matches around (she was a set and a break down to both Azarenka and Bacsinszky) has astounded everyone, including her coach Patrick Mouratoglou.
But is it such a shock? At her solid B-game she is better than the rest of the field. Even when she's struggling with fatigue she has the ability to pound 125 mph serves to secure easy holds. Put a soft serve into the box and she will pummel it. When Serena is struggling with her health and rhythm she has the ability to turn the tennis court into a batting cage. You don't have to expend much energy when rallies last less than three shots.
That's the challenge for Safarova, who has been an absolute terror all tournament. She arrives to the final having not lost a set in six matches against top opposition. At the start of the tournament it was Serena who looked to have been given a tough draw. But it's Safarova who's had the tougher task. She opened with a win over Anastasia Pavlyuchenka and then her easiest match of the tournament came in the second round against Kurumi Nara. Next she scored a string of big wins over Sabine Lisicki, defending champion and No. 2 Maria Sharapova, the young Spanish upstart Garbine Muguruza and 2008 champion and No. 7 Ana Ivanovic. She has played five tiebreak sets and won them all, a strong indication she is handling the pressure moments well.
"She's a lefty, which always provides different challenges," Serena said. "I know I'm going to have to play really well to win. But at this point I just want to get better—it's hard to think about the match or winning another Grand Slam title right now."
Serena is 8-0 against Safarova, with the Czech winning just three sets. Their last match came at the China Open last fall, where Serena won 6–1, 1–6, 6–2. A win on Sunday would cap off one of the wildest and confusing Slam-winning runs of Serena's career. It would also put her just two majors behind Steffi Graf's seemingly untouchable record of 22 major titles in the Open Era, opening up the distinct possibility—given her prowess at Wimbledon—that Serena could catch Graf this fall at the U.S. Open. Oh, and no pressure: if Serena does catch Graf in New York she'll be the first person to complete the calendar Slam since...Graf.
Needless to say, that's a lot of pressure for the American. Earlier in the tournament she spoke openly about how difficult it is to take the court every time as the overwhelming favorite. Wins aren't news. Losses are headlines. One "benefit" of Serena's pre-final illness is she avoided a slew of questions from the press about her historic quest to stand alone as the Open Era's greatest champion. She can take the court on Saturday with her earphones in, drowning out the white noise of expectation that follows her whenever she unzips her racket bag.
"Being in the final here in Paris means so much to me and it's very upsetting that I feel so lousy right now," Serena said in Friday's statement. "It's really unfortunate to be like this at the Grand Slam where I feel so at home and really want to win. I just have to hope that tomorrow I will be feeling a lot better and able to give my best on court."
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