PARIS – It's not how you start, it's how you finish. And for Serena Williams, she started and finished with her best tennis of the tournament to win her third French Open title. The No. 1 American rallied from a dip in form in the second set to win the final six games and defeat No. 13 Lucie Safarova 6–3, 6–7, 6–2 to win her 20th major title, putting her two away from catching Steffi Graf's Open Era record.
Three thoughts from Serena's gutsy, grinding, and ultimately dominant two weeks in Paris:
Serena's will was stronger than her tennis in Paris
With her three-set victory in the final, Serena became the first woman to ever lose five sets en route to a major title. This was not the dominant run to the title she had in Paris in 2012, where she rolled through the draw and lost just one set. This fortnight has been a battle, both against worthy opponents and her own ailing body.
She lost the first set in four of her six matches heading into the final. She was down to No. 105 Anna-Lena Friedsam of Germany in the second round. She was down a set and a break to a game Victoria Azarenka in the third round. She found herself down yet again to her young American rival Sloane Stephens in the fourth round. And then, once again, she found herself down a set and a break to Timea Bacsinszky in the semifinal.
But each time she found a way to win. Her opponents didn't choke these matches away. Serena simply elevated to the rarefied air of tennis that only she can summon. On Saturday, Serena came out under a cloud of illness to play her best tennis of the last few months. She powered down a 120 mph ace in her first service game and made Safarova look second best throughout the first set and a half, building a 6–3, 4–1 lead before the clock ticked past an hour.
"I just couldn't find any weapon that could stop her," Safarova said. "I was trying to mix up the serve, trying to mix up the rhythm, trying to go for risk shots. But when she was on, she was just serving amazing and going for the returns, pressuring me right away. It's just hard to do anything with that."
But the dip came. After the match she said, "I choked." Her powerful shots began to misfire. Her serve failed her. She hit a double-fault on two break points give back her double-break lead and then meekly lost the tiebreak 7–2. The struggle continued through the start of the third set, as Safarova earned a break in the first game and consolidated for a 2–0 lead.
Then, the competitive beast inside Serena woke up. She excoriated herself, laying into herself with an expletive-laden rant. With her frustration vented, she found her rarefied level again, pounding winners from all sides of the court and urging herself on with each one. She unleashed her entire arsenal on Safarova and the Czech was left rocking on her heels.
"It was interesting, because usually I get really nervous," Williams said. "Last time I won here I was so nervous. That time I wasn't that nervous. I got a little tight, but I wasn't super nervous. Then she started playing some good shots and I hit a lot of double faults. Then my first serve abandoned me. Once she saw that I got a little tight she started playing really a lot better, started playing like the player that got her to the final. That's why it was a tough match for me today."
We throw around that phrase "Refuse to Lose," but in the third set of her 24th major final, Serena put on a clinic. She is now 240-7 at the majors when she wins the first set. "Believe it or not I either get angry or I get calm," Serena told a small group of reporters after the win. "I always say if I'm losing, I'm going out swinging. I think I play my best tennis when I am swinging. It helps me. I play more aggressive. I just think once I decide that I start playing my game and when I'm playing my game it's difficult for me to lose."
Serena's historic quest moves to Wimbledon
With her win on Saturday, Serena became just the fifth woman in the Open Era and first since Jennifer Capriati in 2001 to complete the Australian Open-French Open double. She has now won the last three majors. She will get three weeks to celebrate her latest achievement and then she must zero in on the lush lawns of Wimbledon, where she will be the heavy favorite. Win seven matches there and she will complete the non-Calendar Slam—holding all four major trophies—for the second time in her career.
"I think it will be awesome, but at the end of the day it's pretty awesome to have 20," Williams said. "Obviously I would love to win a Grand Slam. I haven't done great at Wimbledon the past two years, so I'm going to take it a day at a time there.
It would also set up a massive U.S. Open campaign in the fall, where she could not only become the third woman in the Open Era to complete the calendar Grand Slam but she would catch Graf's record of 22 in New York.
"I think you guys are forgetting that I have won the last three Grand Slams. You guys are so focused on this Calendar thing," Serena said. "I never would have expected that at this time in my career that I would have won three Slams in a row. No matter what happens at Wimbledon, this for me is unbelievable. I am really excited to have done this.
"I'm hoping Djokovic will win so I'm not the only one with this pressure on me," Serena said. "We're in this together, brother. So we'll see. I don't want people asking me all these questions. I'm telling you, at Wimbledon the monkey is off my back because I have not done well there in a couple of years considering how well I have done there for so many years."
Chapeau, Lucie Safarova
No one gave the 28-year-old much of a fighting chance against Serena on Sunday, but the amiable Czech made Serena earn it. After two weeks playing her best tennis to beat defending champion and No. 2 Maria Sharapova, 2008 champion Ana Ivanovic, last year's quarterfinalist Garbine Muguruza, 2013 Wimbledon finalist Sabine Lisicki and the toughest first round match of anyone against Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, Safarova took the World No. 1 the distance and made her rise to the occasion.
"It was amazing two weeks for me here. I loved every second of it," she said. "I get great wins, great fight, and reached my best result in career so far."
Safarova will join Petra Kvitova in the Top 10 on Monday, making her debut at a career-high No. 7. This marks the first time two Czech players have occupied the top tier since 1989. Could we be seeing a late-career surge from Safarova? The talented lefty has always been deemed a bit of an underachiever given her tools, but she proved over this fortnight that she's ready to take the next step.