French Open 2013: How Serena Williams Became Unstoppable at 31 Years Old

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French Open 2013: How Serena Williams Became Unstoppable at 31 Years Old
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If there is such a thing as a perfect tennis match, Serena Williams played it Thursday afternoon. 

The younger Williams destroyed Sara Errani 6-0, 6-1 in the French Open semifinal in just 46 minutes. She hit 40 winners and only 12 unforced errors, won 28 out of 33 points on her serve, eight out of 10 points at the net and broke the No. 5-seeded Italian five times. She would have destroyed anyone Thursday. 

Serena's performance in this match should be studied, cherished and framed. At 31 years old, she is arguably playing the best tennis of her career.

It was pretty much the complete opposite of her performance at the French Open last year.

In her shocking first-round loss to Virginie Razzano in Paris last year, Serena looked slow, unsure and rattled. She looked fragile.

After she was shocked off the court by Razzano—the only first-round loss in a Grand Slam in her career—rumors of her demise were rampant. Sports Illustrated's Jon Wertheim quoted the concerns of his sources in his French Open mailbag last year

Back to Serena, a Williams confidant claims that a) Serena put on significant weight since Charleston and talk that she came to Paris in peak condition is nonsense. b) Wimbledon looms large. "If she doesn't play well there, sadly, I don't think she'll win another Slam."

Well, Serena won Wimbledon last year. And she hasn't stopped winning since.

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The turning point for Serena came a few days after her defeat in Roland Garros last year. With apartments in Paris and Wimbledon on the horizon, she didn't want to fly back to the States to train. So she sought out acquaintance Patrick Mouratoglou, who had a tennis academy in the area. She began working at the academy right away. After clicking with Mouratoglou, she brought him onto her team as a coaching consultant. 

With a renewed focus on fitness and technique, she went into Wimbledon with something to proveboth to herself and to the rest of the world. Still, it wasn't until her victory over Jie Zheng, 9-7 in the third round, that she was really able to find her groove again. 

“I barely was able to get through my first three, four matches at Wimbledon,” Serena told reporters earlier this year. “I really, really struggled in those matches. After that, I just had to let things go, had to emotionally let things go and just play tennis.”

Play tennis she did. Since last year's French Open, Serena has gone 74-4.

Her only losses have come to Angelique Kerber in Cincinnati, when she was exhausted after a non-stop summer of winning, to Sloane Stephens in the Australian Open quarterfinals, when she was dealing with a hurt ankle, and to Victoria Azarenka in the Doha final.

And her fourth loss deserves an asterisk—she withdrew before her match with Marion Bartoli in Dubai, giving her opponent a walkover.

Julian Finney/Getty Images
Serena Williams and her team after winning the 2012 WTA Championships in Istanbul.

In between the losses, she has won 10 titlesWimbledon, Olympics, Carlsbad, U.S. Open, WTA Championships, Brisbane, Miami, Charleston, Madrid, Romeand defeated 23 Top 10 players.

Her dedication to the smaller events has been the most impressive—and perhaps the most integral—part of her dominance. Throughout her career, Serena has always been a great player at the big events, but known to phone it in—or perhaps not even show up—at the smaller events.

While she’s still careful with her scheduling—as any 31-year-old top athlete should be—she’s been able dedicate herself fully to every single event she’s playing. She no longer takes any opponent or any event for granted.  

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It's a fine line between greatness and dominance, and so much of that leap is a mental one. While Serena has certainly improved her chances by getting into the best shape of her life at 31, she has also shown a mental maturity that has helped get her out of tight situations and keep her focused when she's not in them. She's used the smaller tournaments to exercise her mental muscles as much as her physical ones. 

This has been especially apparent as she has gone through a tear on red clay, which has always been her weakest surface. While so many players have been defeated by their aversion to the dirt, late in her career Serena has accepted the challenge.

She's made it her personal mission to win the French Open again. 

“Red clay is about patience,” Chrissie Evert said from her ESPN commentary booth as she watched Serena dismantle Errani Thursday. “Now it’s also about power.”

Power is something that Serena has always had. There’s the power that comes from her physical gifts and the power that comes from within. There’s power in her stare and power in her strokes. There's power to spare.

But patience she has had to learn. Patience she's gotten through trial and error. Patience just might be her greatest accomplishment and the thing that has revitalized her career. 

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Sharapova and Serena before the Miami final in March.

She's one win away from that patience paying off.

In the final, she's facing defending champion Maria Sharapova, who gutted out a tough three-set victory over Victoria Azarenka in her semifinal. 

Serena has a 12-match winning streak and a 13-2 record overall against Sharapova.  

No matter what Sharapova tries or how hard she competes, she always seems to come up short against Serena Williams. The last eight years of their "rivalry" has been one-way traffic.

Though the two haven't met in a Grand Slam since Wimbledon 2010, and Sharapova gave Serena a scare in their meeting in the Miami final earlier this year, it's safe to say Serena is still the heavy favorite going into this match. 

In sports, nothing is a given. But if Sharapova wants to defend her French Open crown and prevent Serena from winning Grand Slam No. 16 on Saturday, she has to find a way to stop the unstoppable. 

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