PARIS – “Anything is possible.”
That was the takeaway, Serena Williams told me, from what might go down as her most arduous, and wackiest, Grand Slam title.
Williams expressed this to me less 48 hours after battling the flu and holding off Lucie Safarova of the Czech Republic in three tough sets to win her third French Open championship and 20th Grand Slam title.
At 33, the age-defying American is halfway to a calendar year Grand Slam and closing in on Steffi Graf’s Open-era record of 22, which she could tie at the U.S. Open later this year. At this rate, Margaret Smith Court’s all-time mark of 24 appears in jeopardy, too.
I met Williams on Monday at the newer of her two apartments in Paris. She traded up from a two-bedroom apartment a couple of years ago, which she says is “still on the market.”
Her four-bedroom flat in the eighth arrondissement sits along the more residential section of Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, one of the city’s swankiest shopping streets and a short distance from landmarks such as the Arc de Triomphe and the Élysée Palace.
When I arrived, she was lounging on a couch in the living room of her apartment with her well-traveled Yorkshire terrier Chip, who was having the run of the place. She was dressed in an orange and white striped Nike top and short, gray athletic shorts. Her hair was pulled up into a ponytail.
She apologized for the “mess” in the apartment (it wasn’t particularly) and the lack of food. She offered me a drink. “I make really good coffee,” she said, and then prepared me a mean double espresso.
There were no handlers present. No agents. No bodyguards. No family except her half-sister, Lyndrea, and a male assistant who popped in and out.
Williams, still coughing and sniffling, was fresh off a night of low-key revelry. She looked worn out. She had hosted a team dinner and then met up with men’s French Open winner Stan Wawrinka at the Le Royal Monceau hotel.
She wanted to celebrate harder but wasn’t up to it yet, so they hung out for a couple of hours. “We’re good friends so I was happy for him and we both wear the same watch (Audemars Piguet),” she said.
We sat in her kitchen and living room for the next hour and discussed injuries (I recently cut the same tendon in my foot that sidelined Williams in 2010-11), religion, family, and of course tennis.
When we were done, this was my takeaway: Williams – the game’s most ruthless competitor — is mellowing. Here’s the crazier part: It’s not hurting her game. It might actually be helping.
This will create cognitive dissonance for those that witnessed Williams the last two weeks. She dropped numerous F-bombs when she let a big lead go against Safarova. She bellowed C’mons. She screamed at the heavens. She fell behind in match after match and needed five three-setters to win the title, the most of her career.
Williams has forged a legendary career by pushing herself to victory no matter the circumstances. She operates somewhere between force of will and rage. The fight is intact. But internally, Williams is not the same. Not exactly Zen, but swinging her samurai sword with more inner peace. Deadly, but calm.
As we chatted, Williams returned to the period four years ago when she was sidelined for 11 months. She severed a tendon in her right foot on glass after winning the 2010 Wimbledon and re-injured it by trying to come back too soon. Later, she developed blood clots and was rushed to the hospital for an emergency surgery to remove a hematoma in her abdomen.
“I definitely think it reset how I feel and how I look at things,” Williams said. “Also how you appreciate things. I was knock, knock, knocking on the door. You just start to think, OK, this is the bigger picture. Different things are more important than winning a tennis match, and when you go out to play these people you realize I’m going to do the best I can, when I can, how I can, but it’s not the end of the world. I’m still going to go home. I have a supportive family. Great parents. Great sisters. Wonderful dogs.”
Williams said she has started to see things outside the court in a less adversarial way. She mentioned the retired four-time Grand Slam champion Kim Clijsters of Belgium, one of the tour’s most affable and popular players. “I could see she had that philosophy and it makes a lot of sense,” she said.
There is no question Williams has been a more dominant player in the four years since her injury/illness absence. In the 61 tournaments since Williams returned to the WTA tour after 11 months in June 2011, she has won 30 titles, seven majors and owns a .924 winning percentage (242-20), according to the WTA. That compares to 11 titles and six majors at an .800 clip (180-45) in the 61 events prior to her extended layoff.
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Some credit also must to go to her coach, the Frenchman Patrick Mouratoglou. They teamed up three years ago when Serena was dumped out of the first round of the French Open (her only opening-round loss at a major to date). Their partnership has accounted for seven titles in the last 12 majors and his ability to consistently push her has hastened her ascent to the top at a time when most players are trailing off.
“Not bad,” said Serena of the tally. She added: “What’s most impressive is that he really has a way to motivate me … He reminds me of the big picture. He’ll say like, ‘In a week you’ll be fine.’ Or ‘You’ll think about this in two years and you’ll be really happy that you were able to give it your all.’”
Williams, who has owned an apartment in Paris since 2007 and speaks passable French, showed me around her place. It was a hodge-podge of period furniture, tennis gear and knick-knacks. A fan’s painting sat of Williams sat on the mantelpiece. The walls and shelves were decorated with family photographs and one of her own abstract creations, which she called “the last of my expressions.”
Much of the décor, in tones of black, white and gray, are exact copies of rooms she’s seen on Pinterest, the online social scrapbooking site. “I’m obsessed with it,” she said.
Winning a true Grand Slam – last accomplished by Germany’s Graf in 1988 — would mean a lot. At this stage of her record-breaking career, Williams says it isn’t her top priority. With multiple Olympic gold medals and fistfuls of majors, it would no longer define her. In a way, it could hinder her.
“Obviously I would love to do it,” she said. “But I feel like if I do it, I would want to retire. I don’t want to retire actually because I want to play Olympics and play Australia. I have a really cute outfit next year,” she laughed. “I can’t wait for that. I just want to keep going right now.”
A Jehovah’s Witness, Williams rarely discusses her religion, though she regularly gives it a mention in post-victory speeches. She said she attends church regularly when at home and credits her faith for helping her stay centered when many other childhood prodigies burned out. “I’m not saying that’s what they needed,” she said. “I’m saying it kept me level-headed. It keeps me balanced.”
Williams knows she can be a polarizing figure. Increasingly, she lets the criticism slide. Many fans on social media disparaged the American during her semifinal comeback win over Timea Bacsinszky. Williams appeared lethargic and troubled between points but found the energy to reel off the final 10 games of the 4-6, 6-3 6-0 victory. “Quite frankly it doesn’t bother me,” she said.
Williams said she didn’t do anything special in the match and was unable to move for 45 minutes in the locker room afterwards, where retired 2013 Wimbledon champion Marion Bartoli, now working for French TV, took off her shoes and unwrapped her ankle tape.
“I guess people say I’m dramatic but I would like to see them play with the flu against a player who was having an amazing year and playing really well,” said Williams, sounding more weary than defensive. “I think it was courageous. I could have, and most people would have, pulled out before that semifinal or the final.”
Are we really seeing a new, calmer, Williams?
It’s not only her words that point to a shift. In recent times, she befriended the likes of Caroline Wozniacki and Victoria Azarenka, two of her fiercest rivals. She speaks more openly of her foibles. She is more willing to admit mistakes (and not with empty promises of a “big ‘ol hug”). Not least of all, this spring she returned to the tournament at Indian Wells, Calif., for the first time in 14 years following a racially tinged incident that shook Williams and her family to the core. “I never would have gone if they didn’t support it,” she said of her father, Richard, and her older sister, Venus.
Serena said Venus might even be back next year. She didn’t want to put words in her mouth, but told me it was “definitely not” out of the question. “It just didn’t work out for her because she was playing all those other tournaments,” she said.
Next up, of course, is Wimbledon. Grass is perfect for the American’s big serve and first-strike tennis, but she hasn’t gone past the fourth round since 2012 when she won her fifth London title. She said she was hoping to improve on recent results and is excited to try to equal her “Serena Slam” of 2002-03, when she won four consecutive majors at the age of 21.
“People keep forgetting I’m holding three, which is pretty awesome,” the reigning U.S. Open, Australian Open and French Open winner said. The chance to replicate it again 12 years later proves her longevity. “Those kind of feats mean a lot to me,” she added.
Her last and best chance for a calendar year Grand Slam or another Serena Slam could bite the dust. She could lose at Wimbledon. She could falter later this summer at the U.S. Open. She could get injured, or sick. Graf and Court might never be caught. Then again, she might equal or surpass them, and more. Either way it might be OK.
Anything is possible.