Serena Williams will arrive at the French Open at Roland Garros this year undercooked and unfancied to finally equal the all-time women’s Grand Slam singles record of 24 titles – but the 39-year-old American has been proving the doubters wrong most of her life.
When Williams lifted the trophy at the Australian Open in early 2017 having beaten older sister Venus in the final and while pregnant with daughter Olympia, it seemed merely a question of when and not if she would draw level with and in all likelihood overtake Margaret Court’s tally, established before the Open era.
There are parallels with Tiger Woods’ bid to chase down Jack Nicklaus’s almost mythical total of 18 golf majors. Woods got to 14 in 2008 at the US Open almost on one leg after knee surgery, and the achievement looked a shoo-in. But his off-course personal turmoil in 2009 and back injuries meant it was 11 years until he won No15 at the Masters, and the target now looks out of reach.
It has now been more than four years since Williams lifted the trophy in Melbourne, and since then there have been 11 more unsuccessful attempts in the Majors, and four lost finals to Angelique Kerber, Naomi Osaka, Simona Halep and Bianca Andreescu.
World No8 Williams has a deep love for Paris, calling it a “home from home”, and even has an apartment in the French capital on the Left Bank close to the Eiffel Tower – though the pandemic made it impossible for her to stay there last year, having to occupy the designated players’ hotel.
But the clay of Roland Garros is not her closest friend. It takes the most out of her physically, and is the place where she has played and won least - the last of three titles coming in 2015 - during a career that has already established her almost certainly as the greatest woman player in history.
For most players, with Williams’ underwhelming build-up to the second Major of the year, you would instantly and without equivocation dismiss her chances out of hand. She and coach Patrick Mouratoglu made the late decision to play in Parma this week to get some court-time on the clay.
That resulted in a loss to world No68 Katerina Siniakova from the Czech Republic in straight sets – and the only other match since losing to Osaka in the Australian Open semis was another defeat in Rome in two sets earlier in May to Argentina’s Nadia Podoroska.
The message from coach Mouratoglu, though, was very much ‘Don’t panic’. Speaking to Sky, he said, "I think Serena lost [in Parma] because she was not ready. Maybe it was not a good idea to go and play there after losing in Rome, as her match there showed a lot of things that still needed to be worked on to be able to compete at the highest level.
“But it’s good, because we know what she still needs to accomplish in order to be ready for Roland Garros. I'm not worried in general because if she does the job she will be ready. It’s just about doing the job.”
Such has been Williams’ dominance, aura and personality, it has at times in the past two decades been almost impossible to imagine a women’s game without her. But the emergence in recent years of strong new champions has diluted concerns about what happens when she calls it a day.
World No1 Ash Barty, Osaka, Halep, Elina Svitolina, and the younger Aryna Sabalenka, Sofia Kenin, Andreescu and Iga Swiatek are creating their own history and playing out their own classic matches.
None of them are likely ever to be able to match Williams’ sheer impact on the sport, nor her towering presence in the wider worlds of celebrity and fashion. A guest at the Royal wedding of Prince Harry and her close friend Meghan Markle, Williams’ matches at the US Open in particular are magnets for the A-List of sport, Hollywood and television.
To that can be added apparel deals over 20 years with first Puma and then Nike, the designer clothing ranges, and the jewellery and handbag lines for a woman that has transcended her sport like almost no other – and reaped the financial rewards, with a fortune estimated at £150 million ($210m).
Williams has overcome plenty in her life to become an iconic role model for women and the African American and black communities worldwide, and was a loud and influential voice in support of the ‘Black Lives Matter’ campaign.
The Williams family suffered a terrible tragedy in 2003 with the murder of older sister Yetunde. And Serena admits she almost died from complications in childbirth in 2018, followed by post-natal depression. Taken with a host of tennis-related injuries, reaching four Slam finals since 2017 is an achievement in itself.
There have been lows on court, too, course. The US Open has witnessed some of the moments that Williams might not include on any show-reel. After racket abuse and clashing with officials in a 2009 semi-final loss to Kim Clijsters she was heavily fined.
In the 2011 final she was docked a penalty point against Sam Stosur leading to the loss of a vital game, and further angry clashes with the chair umpire followed before eventual defeat. And more recently there was a tirade against Carlos Ramos during the final loss to Osaka in 2018, when the official pulled her up for being coached from the players’ box.
However, setbacks of any and every kind have always been shrugged off and it looks as if the only thing that might eventually halt Williams is time itself. Whether that allows for one more historic triumph, everyone will find out this year – starting in Paris.