Serena Williams Putting Painful Recent Losses in the Past With French Open Run

Merlisa Lawrence Corbett@@merlisaFeatured ColumnistJune 3, 2016

Serena Williams hits a forehand during her semifinal match at the 2016 French Open.
Serena Williams hits a forehand during her semifinal match at the 2016 French Open.PHILIPPE LOPEZ/Getty Images

Serena Williams gets another chance at history, or heartbreak.

A 21-time Grand Slam champion, Williams defeated Kiki Bertens 7-6(7), 6-4, in the semifinals of the 2016 French Open. In the final, she will face No. 4 Garbine Muguruza, who beat Sam Stosur, 6-2, 6-4. 

It's another chance for the world No. 1 to win a 22nd Grand Slam title and tie Steffi Graf for most Slams in the Open era. This will be her third attempt at 22. She came close but failed at the 2015 U.S. Open and this year's Australian Open. 

Yet merely getting back to another final demonstrates how Williams has put those painful recent losses behind her. 

No longer a slam dunk to win a Grand Slam, Williams will settle for being a long-range jumper if it gets her another trophy.

Regardless of how formidable the opponent, with Williams, it always seems as if she has to simply decide to move beyond past failures. As her coach Patrick Mouratoglou told the New York Times' David Waldstein: "It's not about them. It is about Serena. She will decide what her future is going to be in the next days."

Up until winning the BNL d'Italia in Rome, Williams hadn't won a title in nine months. Known as the consummate closer, the American struggled to capitalize on break points and put opponents away. Instead of shutting the door on matches, she found herself playing defense in finals against Angelique Kerber in the Australian Open and Victoria Azarenka at Indian Wells. 

Williams' run in Rome and the ability to come back after trailing at Roland Garros reflects the 34-year-old's resolve: No matter how painful the past, fight on.

She advanced to the semifinals in Paris after an epic comeback against unseeded Yulia Putintseva. Down a set and two games away from being sent home, Williams recovered and went on to win the third set, 6-1. 

After the match, an exhausted Williams told ESPN: "I honestly didn't think I was going to win that in the second set."

A lack of confidence is something you seldom expect from someone considered the greatest of all time. Yet last year, at the U.S. Open, doubt crept in. 

With what must have seemed like the weight of world on her racket, Williams dropped two straight sets to No. 43 Roberta Vinci, a player who was 0-4 against her before that match.  

Instead of claiming an historic calendar-year Slam and tying Graf, Williams was a participant in one of the biggest upsets in recent tennis history. 

She left New York depressed

After the loss at the U.S. Open, Mouratoglou told ESPNW writer Melissa Isaacson that Williams had lost motivation:

When she lost in Toronto (last August), she was very disappointed, but we went back to practice the morning after because she wanted to win the US Open. But after this year and the three Grand Slams (she won in 2015), the question is how high her motivation is to play those tournaments. I don't think she should play if the motivation is not really high.

Because she lost (the semifinal) match, she says to me her season is not good. But I like that because it's just about having high expectations and that's what champions have and I think the same way.

She took the rest of the year off and began 2016 with little prep for the Australian Open. However, she raced through the field to reach the finals. The loss to Kerber was disappointing, but not as devastating as the defeat to Vinci.  

Favored to win at Indian Wells, Williams fell to Azarenka, who performed like the dominant player. A week later, she suffered another loss. This time to Svetlana Kuznetsova at the Miami Open, a tournament the world No. 1 has won a record eight times. 

As Miami Herald writer Linda Robertson put it: "No. 1-ranked Williams, the eight-time champion who was aiming to win her fourth in a row, was unrecognizable in defeat. No fist pumps, screams or glares. Just shrugs, sighs and rolled eyes." 

Frustrated, Williams told the Associated Press (h/t the Guardian): "I can't win every match. These players come out and play me like they've never played before in their lives. I have to be 300 percent every day."

Suddenly, stories emerged about Williams' title-less slump. With no titles since Cincinnati in August 2015, people began to question her age, confidence and motivation.  

Serena Williams poses with trophy after winning the 2016 BNL d'Italia in Rome.
Serena Williams poses with trophy after winning the 2016 BNL d'Italia in Rome.FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/Getty Images

Her quasi participation on the tour didn't help. Going into Rome, Williams had played in just three tournaments this year. She skipped Charleston for the second year in a row. She also withdrew from the Madrid Open.

In Rome, she reclaimed her form. Beating a surging Madison Keys, Williams reminded everyone why she's considered one of the greatest of all time. 

According to Peter Bodo of ESPN: "Serena's performance in Rome told anyone who was watching that she's ready to resume the Grand Slam title hunt. The fact that she didn't lose a set is a great omen for her, because it suggested that she was able to focus on the task on hand seamlessly from start to finish."

After triumph in Rome, nine of the 11 experts in ESPN's pre-tournament poll picked Williams to defend her French Open title.

How could they pick against her? Sometimes, people are so focused on her failures they overlook the fact that she's gotten to the finals in six of the last seven Grand Slams.  

Now she must face a healthy, red-hot opponent in Muguruza, the last player to beat the American at Roland Garros. 

In her post-match press conference, Williams told reporters (via WTA staff)

I think Muguruza has been playing really well. She's been playing a really aggressive game and going for her shots. Regardless, I think it will be a good match. I mean, last time we played here in France she was able to win the match.

I learned so much from that match. You know, I hate to lose, but when I do, you know, I hope it was worth it. That match was definitely one of those that was kind of needed and worth it.

It's uncertain how much emotional residue remains from those types of losses. Do they fester, corroding confidence? Or do they linger to fuel motivation?

Serena Williams had to settle for the runner-up trophy after losing to Angelique Kerber at the 2016 Australian Open.
Serena Williams had to settle for the runner-up trophy after losing to Angelique Kerber at the 2016 Australian Open.PETER PARKS/Getty Images

Throughout Williams' career, tough losses have fueled comebacks. Maria Sharapova shocked the 34-year-old at the 2004 Wimbledon final. Sharapova won another match against Williams that year but hasn't beaten her since.

Stosur upset Williams at the 2011 U.S. Open. Stosur is 0-4 against Williams since. (She received a walkover against Williams in Beijing.)

Williams often talks about how she detests losing more than she enjoys winning. She told the Associated Press (h/t the Los Angeles Times): "If you know anything about me, I hate to lose. I've always said I hate losing more than I like winning, so that drives me to be the best that I can be."

This year, she was on a bit of a losing streak in finals until Rome. Within that one tournament, the world No. 1 appeared to decide it was time to get it together. 

British psychologist Henry Ellis once said: "All the art of living lies in a fine mingling of letting go and holding on."

Having let go of recent failures, Williams lives on at Roland Garros. Still holding on, she's played her way to another chance to make history. Win or lose, Williams has demonstrated her mastery over the art of winning. 

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