Serena Williams has pounded her chief rivals in consecutive tournaments, making her the heavy favorite at the French. (Alessandra Tarantino/AP)
ROME -- Serena Williams solidified her status as the overwhelming favorite for the French Open by defeating Victoria Azarenka 6-1, 6-3 in the final of the Italian Open on Sunday. Williams extended her winning streak to a career-high 24 and capped a dominant week in which she didn't drop a set, lost no more than four games in any of her five matches and dished out three 6-0 sets en route to her 51st career title and fourth in a row.
Williams hit winners on 41 of the 74 points she won Sunday and committed 19 unforced errors in a remarkable offensive display against the world No. 3. The 31-year-old American won the title here for the first time since 2002, the same year she won her first and only French Only title. That's a pretty good omen.
Three thoughts on what Williams' latest title means for her prospects at Roland Garros, which begins in a week.
• Has Williams ever looked this good going into the French Open? Well ... yes. Last year she flew into Paris with a 17-match winning streak after collecting titles in Charleston, S.C., and Madrid, beating both Maria Sharapova and Azarenka in the process. It's been much of the same for her this year and coming into Rome she said she could not possibly be more confident than she was at this time last year. But last year's streak ended abruptly at Roland Garros, where she lost to Virginie Razzano for her first defeat in the first round of a Grand Slam tournament.
The difference this year is she's done everything she can to destroy the demons that have plagued her on red clay throughout her career. Last week in Madrid she won her first title on red clay since the 2002 French Open and she carried that form into this week. She didn't suffer from any of the mid-match lulls that can pop up even when she's playing well, and she went about her business with intense calm.
Williams has been noticeably more subdued this year compared to last, acutely aware that these stats and streaks mean nothing if she doesn't win at Roland Garros. That loss to Razzano still smarts and she's learned her lesson. All of the cliches apply: Anything can happen on any given day; yesterday doesn't matter today; and nothing is a given. That humility has honed her focus and in that way she's more prepared than ever for her quest for a second French Open title.
"I was feeling excellent last year and I didn't do great," Williams said of the French Open. "This year I feel good, too, but I'm definitely more cautious. I feel I just want to win every point and do every shot the best I can at the French Open. And I'm going to work really hard and not slack at all and do the best I can."
Does Williams feel pressure to win in Paris?
"I don't feel any pressure now," Williams said. "Maybe in the past I have. Like I've always said, I've won every Grand Slam there is to win. Maybe I've only won it once, but I know a lot of people who can't say that. So for me, I don't feel any pressure anymore."
• Azarenka's French Open prospects: In just her second tournament back after a seven-week layoff to rest and heal a foot injury, Azarenka did well to make the final. She survived a three-setter against Samantha Stosur in the quarterfinals and came back from a break down in the second set to beat Sara Errani in the semifinals.
But the rust from her break was apparent throughout the week, both physically and in her game. She was a step slower and a little less explosive. She backed off a number of returns and mid-court balls against Williams that she would have leaned into three or four months ago, a sign of indecision.
Clay is undoubtedly her weakest surface, but Azarenka made great strides last year in making finals in Stuttgart, Germany, and Madrid, losing only to Sharapova and Williams. With a good draw, a semifinal run at the French Open isn't out of the question.
• Stopping Serena in Paris: Williams improved to 13-2 against Sharapova with last week's 6-1, 6-4 victory in the Madrid final and moved to 12-2 against Azarenka with Sunday's result, and yet those two remain Serena's chief rivals at the moment. So if the two women directly behind her in the rankings can't get a sniff, who else is there?
Williams' biggest test at the French Open won't come against the big names but against the lesser-knowns in the early rounds. Serena hasn't made it past the quarterfinals since 2003, with losses to the likes of Stosur, Svetlana Kuznetsova, Katarina Srebotnik and Razzano. A few of those came in wet and heavy conditions, so the weather will be a factor on any given day. In the end, though, it's all mental with Williams and perhaps her biggest challenge will be exorcising the Ghost of Virginie Razzano and simply getting past the first round. She's the best player in the world and, as long as she plays that way for seven matches, no one can stop her.
"I think whoever I play is my biggest opponent, but I think the lady in the mirror is the ultimate opponent for me," Williams said. "Like I said, I'm just going to be really cautious and go not for every match but literally for every point."