There's a saying that's popular among tennis commentators: If you're going to beat Serena Williams, you better do it in the first week.
Considering Serena's remaining pre-quarterfinal schedule at this French Open and the form she's shown so far in the tournament, those are not comforting words to those cheering her on.
While the younger Williams sister is undoubtedly one of the greatest tennis players of all time—potentially the greatest, depending on whom you ask—she often finds herself firmly in Struggle Mode.
Her fans and frequent onlookers know this all too well. Sometimes, often at a smaller event or in the first week of a major, Serena steps on the court and looks like a player a 19-time Grand Slam champion would feast on. She barely moves her feet. She goes for too much and sprays errors. She throws her hands up in exasperation. Simply put, she struggles.
This was the Serena who showed up in her second-round match Thursday against Germany's Anna-Lena Friedsam, a relatively unheralded 21-year-old ranked No. 105 in the world. In the first set, Serena hit five double-faults, 21 errors and only 11 winners. She was broken three times, and even though she broke back the first time Friedsam was serving for the set, she ended up dropping it 7-5.
As Chris Chase of For the Win points out, her early problems with Friedsam are part of a puzzling pattern for the legend:
These struggles with clearly lesser players are a confusing chapter in an otherwise dominant career. I mean, how you can stay undefeated against Maria Sharapova for a decade, but barely scrape together a win over a woman who has never reached the top 75 and entered the French Open with fewer wins (1) in 2015 than you had titles (2).
Williams took the second and third sets 6-3, 6-3, but the match immediately brought back memories of Serena's French Open loss to Virginie Razzano in 2011, where she simply looked lost on court. This time, however, Serena was able to stop the bleeding, compose herself and survive to live another day at Roland Garros.
"I'm just happy I could get through that. Honestly, the level I played at was unprofessional," Serena said after her match, as reported by the Roland Garros Twitter account.
It seems she is just as confused by her early-round lapses as the rest of us are.
But with a draw that gets much more difficult starting Saturday, when she's scheduled to play former No. 1 and two-time Grand Slam champion Victoria Azarenka, Serena needs to step it up. Big time.
While Serena's loss to No. 111 Razzano is her worst loss at the French Open and the only first-round loss at a Slam in her career, it's far from her only confounding first-week result at a major in recent years. Since her late-career surge began in earnest back in 2012, she has won six Grand Slams. In the other seven majors she played during that span, she only once reached the quarterfinals and never made it further than that.
Those losses have come to No. 56 Ekaterina Makarova in the fourth round of the 2012 Australian Open, No. 25 Sloane Stephens in the quarters of the 2013 Australian Open, No. 24 Sabine Lisicki in the fourth round of 2013 Wimbledon, No. 14 Ana Ivanovic in the fourth round of the 2014 Australian Open, No. 35 Garbine Muguruza in the second round of the 2014 French Open and No. 24 Alize Cornet in the third round of 2014 Wimbledon.
All of these are capable, talented players who should be given their due for stepping up, playing their best games and taking it to Serena. But there's no doubt that these are all players Serena was expected to defeat and should have been able to handle if she had been playing close to her best.
And that right there is where the worry comes in for Serena at Roland Garros as she goes for her 20th major title and third French Open. While she was able to defeat Friedsam while playing poorly, she's going to need to be much closer to her championship level if she wants to make a legitimate run at this trophy.
Her third-round opponent, Azarenka, is still on the comeback trail from injury, but lately, she has been playing much more like the player who defeated Serena twice in 2013 and pushed her to the brink in the 2012 and 2013 U.S. Open finals. The two met in Madrid earlier this clay season, and Serena prevailed, but the Belarusian did take her all the way to a third-set tiebreaker.
Awaiting in the fourth round could potentially be Stephens, who has taken advantage of a subpar Serena in a Slam before.
These are both players who know they are capable of beating Serena and who have the talent and current form to be able to expose her weaknesses and fully pounce on Serena if she comes out in Struggle Mode once again.
The good news for Team Serena is that she is a player who raises her level the tougher the competition gets. The bad news is that Serena is dealing with a lingering elbow injury and a run of unimpressive form, and it remains to be seen if she can summon anything close to her top level against stiff competition this soon in the tournament.
If Serena can make it to the quarterfinal, go ahead and write her into the winner's circle. Until then, keep your erasers handy.