World number 1 Serena Williams came to Roland Garros on a mission this spring--to win a second French Open. Her only victory in Paris had taken place in 2002; since then, a series of obstacles have gotten in her way, but not this time. In fact, even before Williams arrived at the tournament, she was the absolute favorite to lift the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen. The winner of Charleston, Madrid and Rome, the 31-year-old holder of 15 major singles titles--after going out in the first round of the French Open last year--made it her task to claim the title again. She hired Patrick Mouratoglou to coach her, and together, they turned Williams into the best clay competitor in the field.
With increased patience, better point construction, and more finesse in her clay court movement, Williams was not going to let anything--not rain, not wind, not mental demons, not defending champion Maria Sharapova--stop her. What makes the story more interesting is the fact that Sharapova even came to be the defending champion. Not known for her clay court skills, the Russian star made a vast improvement last year in her own movement and point construction, and won a Career Slam when she prevailed in Paris.
Not having beaten Williams since 2004, Sharapova's only strategy today was to just go for everything. Her sometimes-fragile serve let her down today, though not as much as it has in the recent past. Things started out badly for her when she went down 0-40 on her serve in the first game of the match, but she not only held, but broke Williams in the next game. Sharapova then went up 40-15 on her next serve, but--at one point away from holding a 3-0 lead--she was broken back.
That small chapter in the 2013 women's final accurately reflected the whole story. Whatever Sharapova did, it wasn't good enough to move her forward and give her some breathing room. She broke Williams to even things at 4-all after Williams became less precise with her forehand. Now, one thought, this could be the start of something really interesting. But Williams then stunningly broke back, and held for a 6-4 first set victory.
The second set opened in a way that was not unlike the first, only this time, Sharapova has to save five break points. Broken in the third game, the defending champion pulled off a very tough hold for 4-5. But that was all that was left for her, as Williams proceeded to hit three aces--one of them (123 mph) at match point, in what has now become a signature ("You know how I like to do it") move for her.
Not enough can be said about the champion's superior defense. Sharapova played well. Against other players, many of her almost-winners would have been greatly-applauded outright winners. But it has become increasingly difficult for even the best players to get anything by Williams, who has now added very agile and rapid clay court sliding to her list of deadly moves.
The eleven-year span between French Open titles is the longest ever experienced by a WTA player. Williams now holds 16 major singles titles. She has been counted out many times because of injury, illness, lack of focus, lack of surface skill, age--whatever. It doesn't matter. She always comes back, and when she does, she finds a way to win.
The great Arantxa Sanchez Vicario presented the trophies. Now a part-time resident of Paris, Williams addressed the crowd in French (as she has following every round). When she complimented her opponent's game and called her a great champion, Sharapova grabbed the microphone and said "Merci beaucoup." It was a charming bit of spontaneity added to what had to be a heart-breaking moment for the defending champion.