Much like the sun offering the occasional peek through heavy cloud over Paris, Serena Williams provided an encouraging sight at Roland-Garros. As qualifying got underway on surrounding courts, the 23-time Grand Slam champion eased concerns the left knee problem which forced her withdrawal after just one match in Rome last week might be troubling enough to rule her out here. She got down to practice at the earliest opportunity, dividing her time between Court Philippe-Chatrier and the beautiful new Court Simonne-Mathieu.
With the air still cool on Chatrier after early morning rain, Williams opted for a precautionary knee brace, but gave every sign of moving well on court. Minutes later over on Mathieu, she kept her tracksuit on while delivering targeted serve after targeted serve, new long blonde plaits flying as music from her own sound system at courtside sent songs by Adele and Rihanna drifting over the terre battue.
“Shine bright like a diamond,” warbled Rihanna to Williams – perceptive lyrics directed at a player who could be as likely as ever to add to her glittering career achievements here, given the intriguingly open women’s field. Any one of a dozen contenders could lift the Coupe Suzanne-Lenglen, and that’s barring the emergence of an unheralded Jelena Ostapenko figure, 2017-style.
Of course all kind of factors from the Big Book of Tennis Theory should make Serena’s quest for a fourth triumph here (her first since 2015) unlikely. It’s surely impossible to be a contender at the clay-court Grand Slam having played just two competitive sets on the surface on the road to Roland-Garros; or having completed a mere three matches since the Australian Open four months ago; or in the knowledge that her last four tournaments have all concluded with physical problems.
Those problems? Left knee in Rome, virus in Indian Wells, that same troublesome knee in Miami, and the turned left ankle which seemed to prove pivotal when she held match point over Karolina Pliskova in her Australian Open quarter-final loss. When you’re 37, all these factors can be yet one more thing to overcome.
But while Williams would hardly have planned it like this, overcoming anything and everything – odds, opponents, injury, lack of match practice, whatever – has long been Serena’s stock in trade. Just 12 months ago here, she arrived with barely a match under her belt since giving birth the previous September, and then got everyone talking with her stunning form through three rounds before a pectoral problem brought matters to a halt.
The rest of her year was classically incongruous – twin finals on the biggest stages at Wimbledon and the US Open, but otherwise one win from just three matches played, with her season stopping entirely after unhappy defeat to Naomi Osaka at Flushing Meadows.
Yet that glimpse of her clay-court form last week in Rome offered clear evidence that she is noticeably leaner, fitter and more mobile than in Melbourne – not easily achieved when injury is lurking.
“I’ve just been on this diet – it’s been awful,” she said, proving her commitment to the cause is as powerful as ever. “When you’re sedentary, it becomes hard to manage your body. So you have to eat grass. That’s kind of what I did. It was a nightmare. But it worked and paid off. I feel like I'm taking it one day at a time. I've been really putting in the hours in terms of keeping my cardio as much as I could with a knee injury, which is really impressive how I've been able to do it.”
So the self-belief is as evident as ever, too. Rare is the competitor who could effectively play only at Grand Slams, yet be a fearsome contender at all four. Step forward once again, Serena Williams. Roland-Garros 2019 awaits.