This time last year, Serena Williams was firing on all cylinders at the Madrid Open, much like she is in 2013.
Williams steamrolled the competition in the Spanish capital last May, winning her fifth career clay-court singles title, only to exit Rome the following week with a back injury and then suffer her first-ever first-round loss at a Grand Slam event days later at the 2012 French Open.
Therefore, regardless of how she performs this weekend in Madrid, Serena Williams' 2013 clay-court season will ultimately be judged by how she fares at the year's second Grand Slam.
It's been 11 years since Williams won her only French Open title in 2002, and it's been 10 years since she last made it past the quarterfinals at Roland Garros. She has missed out on three French Open tournaments altogether since 2005 and suffered her lowest Grand Slam moment by far a year ago, bowing out to Virginie Razzano in the opening round in Paris.
Much like Roger Federer on the men's side, Williams' inability to rack up titles at the French Open over the past decade is the only thing holding her back from being revered as one of the top clay-court players the game has ever seen.
That's not to say that Federer or Williams' resume is incomplete, but that given her resume and status among the sport's top players, Serena's success on clay will be judged based on how she performs at the big one. If she can win her 16th career Grand Slam title in Paris this summer, she'll join an elite group of women to have won the French Open twice, cementing her legacy as one of the all-time greats and eliminating any doubts about her ability to deliver on clay.
Sure, Madrid is an excellent opportunity for Williams to gain confidence, tune up her game and earn crucial points towards her first place WTA ranking, but it's also a stepping stone for something bigger—the French Open.
The climax of the challenging clay campaign is the fortnight at Roland Garros, and the winner there will be remembered as the champion of the 2013 clay-court season, regardless of how they performed in lead-up.
Even if Serena conquers Madrid and Rome back-to-back this May she'll need to redeem herself at the French Open to back up those performances and for her clay-court play in 2013 to be considered a success.
Clay is Williams' most challenging surface by far, and that's compounded by the fact that expectations are so high for her, given her success over the past decade plus. Williams only boasts six grass-court singles titles for her career, but her five Wimbledon championships leave no doubt about her grass-court dominance.
It's the opposite on clay, where Williams has won six career singles titles, but just one French Open.
Serena Williams is looking stronger than ever this May, but if last year taught us anything it's that it's far too early to grade her clay-court performance.
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