French Open 2015: Serena Williams survives feisty Safarova for 20th Grand Slam

Serena Williams beats Lucie Safarova in three sets to win her 20th Grand Slam title at the French Open

Was a wind of change about to blow through Roland Garros?

Could the breath of fresh air that is No13 seed Lucie Safarova depose the queen of tennis, the woman who has stood at the top of the rankings for an unbroken 30 months, Serena Williams?

By any measure, it was a huge task. Williams was playing her 24th Grand Slam final and had won 19 of the previous ones. No 20 beckoned, her third at the French Open. And should anyone doubt the form of oldest woman to hold the No1 ranking—Williams turns 34 in September—she was already on a 31-1 run this season.

Her single loss this year came to Petra Kvitova in the semis of Madrid, but she currently held both the US Open and the Australian Open titles. Williams, indeed, was attempting to become the first player to win three straight Majors since she did so herself back in 2002-2003, and become the first player to win the Australian-French Open double since Jennifer Capriati in 2001.

But Williams had had her struggles, both health ones and in the quality of her opponents. It’s a rare occurrence in Williams’ career to find herself a set down in four matches during a tournament, but here, that is just what she faced, and each time came back to win, even from a set and a break down against Victoria Azarenka.

Safarova, in contrast, was playing in her first ever Major final, but since tying up with her new coach Rob Steckley, the popular left-hander had transformed herself from a huge but wayward talent into a confident, winning talent, at the age of 28.

She was undoubtedly a woman on the rise, destined to break the top 10 in time for the next Grand Slam of the year in Wimbledon, a place where she reached her first Major semi-final last year.

This season, she had beaten outstanding competition in Doha to win the title there, and in Paris she had beaten more tough opposition: Anastasia Pavlyuychenkova, Sabine Lisicki, Maria Sharapova, Garbine Muguruza and Ana Ivanovic with the type of crowd-pleasing first-strike hitting that had set Roland Garros abuzz—and all without dropping a set. All that, and she was in the finals of the women’s doubles draw as well.

Williams, it should be said, did lead Safarova 8-0 in their head to head, though the Czech took the American to three sets in their last meeting. And for a set and a half, it looked as though this latest match would run away from Safarova like many other had done against Williams.

The American came out cool, calm and collected to fire winner after winner, first serve after first serve, and more dangerous still, returned Safarova’s serve with interest. There was hardly a rally more than three or four strikes long, and Williams grabbed a quick break in the fourth game with a blistering forehand return-of-serve winner. She held onto the set with a steely grip to its 6-3 conclusion in just 31 minutes.

It was not a case of Safarova’s game being off—though she did not deploy her wide leftie kick serve as often as she might, and her infamous angled forehand took a while to find its groove, though in fairness, it is hard to be offensive against the fire-power of an in-form Williams.

Safarova was up against it in the first game of the second set, too, facing down three break points before Williams broke through and consolidated with four big serves for a love hold: 2-0.

The storm continued, with Williams breaking again for 4-1—she had already struck 27 winners to Safarova’s seven—but Williams blinked, served two double faults, and the Czech was suddenly freed up to hit her big forehand. She caught Williams on the back foot and broke: Not only that, she held and broke again.

With a run of 12 points from the last 15, Safarova was now 5-4 up, but Williams roared herself on with a big hold to break the run. It felt like an important momentum shift, with Williams blasting a return-of-serve backhand winner to break: She had only to serve out the match.

But Safarova had the bit between her teeth and her forehand was working to perfection. She earned break-back point with the forehand and pounded a backhand down the line to level the match, 6-6. She then edged ahead 3-0 and served out the tie-break, 7-2.

It seemed to knock Williams for six: another double fault and a long forehand delivered up an immediate break, and Safarova consolidated with a love hold, 2-0.

But now the power and the focus shifted dramatically back to Williams. She shouted herself to greater effort after every point, a combination of anger and frustration at finding herself facing defeat. In the end, Safarova was powerless to contain the American’s determination or make an impression on her serve, and Williams broke three times to storm to victory, 6-2, in exactly two hours.

Thanks to the spirited, aggressive tennis of Safarova, this turned into a truly compelling women’s final, one that crowned Williams with a 20th Grand Slam title but promised more to come from the world’s new No7, Safarova. Indeed, her fans will look forward eagerly to Wimbledon, where she made that breakthrough last year, and a surface that must fit her game like a glove.

Williams, of course, will remain the favourite there, too, where she has already won five times, though her third French Open win takes her to the top of the leader-board for clay titles, too. She also remains on course for another ‘Serena Slam’, a non-calendar-year run to all four Majors. She could also, though, still win an even bigger accolade, the calendar Slam—one of the few achievements missing from her resume.

And few would bet against it.

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