Magical 20 as Serena wins Roland-Garros
Another major title, and another step closer towards greatest-ever territory.
That's the path Serena Williams is traversing following her latest tennis triumph, a memorable 6-3, 6-7(2), 6-2 defeat of Lucie Safarova to win her third Roland-Garros crown, and a magical 20th Grand Slam singles trophy.
Williams' win on a sunny Saturday on Philippe-Chatrier Court puts her within striking distance of some of the sport's best-ever statistics - very close to Steffi Graf's professional-era record of 22 major titles, and not far behind Margaret Court's all-time mark of 24. The magnitude of playing for such history may have explained her second-set wobble, after she had points for a set and a 5-1 lead. But it was where it counted most, at the end of the match, that Williams was at her strongest.
"It makes this trophy really special. I really wanted it. I wanted to win so bad," Williams said. "I just felt like I had every opportunity in this match. Being down from second, third, fourth round, it wasn't very easy ... but also makes me feel good that I was able to be fit and be able to win the event. I can't believe I won."
In fact, Williams controlled the tempo of the final from the get-go. She left the court after the warm-up for a bathroom break, and walked around slowly between points, still exhibiting signs of the lethargy that had plagued her during her semi-final.
And she was simply a class above Safarova.
In the fourth game, she wrenched control of the set with a flurry of winners to push ahead 3-1, and consolidated for 4-1. The Czech struggled to handle Serena's impressive first serve, on several occasions spectacularly framing returns, but she appeared to have settled into the contest somewhat when she held for 2-4 and then cracked a couple of winners in the seventh game to tie it at 30-30. Williams responded with two big serves - the second an ace - to push ahead 5-2. Safarova saved a set point in the eighth game yet Williams stepped up to the line in the ninth and served out the set to love.
Williams then ran away with it. She powered an off-backhand winner to break in the opening game of the second set, and opened the second game with a 202km/h ace and held to love for 2-0. It was supreme dominance, and Safarova could feel the match slipping away rapidly; she pressed, and missed, giving Williams another break point opportunity in the fifth game. Serena converted with a scorching backhand return winner for 4-1.
It was around this time that former Swedish pro Thomas Johansson tweeted that the rallies were averaging just three shots; Williams exemplified this just minutes later with a first-serve forehand-winner combo that put her up 40-15 in the sixth game, jumping up and down in her least-lethargic celebration so far. But she may have celebrated too soon. A Safarova winner followed by a Williams error tightened scores up to deuce, and when the world No.1 double-faulted, she lost the game.
The comeback was on. Safarova, reading Serena's strokes better, began to connect more cleanly with her shots and fire regular winners. Williams couldn't contend with the force with which the Czech was coming at her, and sprayed errors. Suddenly, Safarova had won four straight games to tip the set on its head. And the crowd had come to life.
Responding with a settling hold for 5-5, Williams then fired another return winner in the 11th game to break serve. But when it came time to serve for the title, she couldn't; some irresistible play from the Czech - including a scorching backhand winner to break back - sent the set to a tiebreak. Safarova dominated here, coming out on top of some epic rallies to win her sixth tiebreak from six at this year's tournament.
Into the third, where the 13th seed continued to flourish. She moved ahead 2-0 as Williams' game broke down; from 30-15 in the second game, she double-faulted and then leaked two errors. Furious at herself, Williams belted a backhand winner and then forced an error to gain a break point in the fourth game, and Safarova could feel her coming; she promptly double-faulted. Scores were now locked at 2-2.
"It was interesting, because usually I get really nervous. Last time I won here I was so nervous. That time I wasn't that nervous. I got a little tight, but I wasn't super nervous. Then she started playing some good shots and I hit a lot of double faults. Then my first serve abandoned me," Williams said.
"Once she saw that I got a little tight she started playing really a lot better, started playing like the player that got her to the final. That's why it was a tough match for me today ... I felt bad at that point. I felt, gosh, if I lose this match I'm going to try not to be too upset about it and look at the positives, that I'm even in the final. I was just kind of trying to think about it that way."
And although Safarova continued to fight and produce some great tennis, Williams had rediscovered her game, and would not be denied - she produced two aces either side of an unreturnable serve to go up 3-2. A fabulous 19-stroke rally ensued in the seventh game, which Serena eventually won after a Safarova error and which drew sustained applause from the crowd. But when Safarova hunched over her racquet, disappointed and gasping for air, you could sense she felt beaten.
Williams ensured it with a hold for 5-2, and then wrested control of the final game, hitting with venom and forcing Safarova into error. She did so again on match point to seal victory, raising her arms in a mixture of elation and relief.
Serena would almost certainly cement herself as the greatest ever should she continue her form at the Grand Slams. She now holds the past three major titles - US Open 2014, and the Australian and French Opens in 2015 - and with her victories in Melbourne and Paris this year, she's halfway to a coveted calendar Grand Slam. "I think it will be awesome, but at the end of the day it's pretty awesome to (nonetheless) have 20," she said.
"Obviously I would love to win a Grand Slam."