Ailing Serena Williams Faces Tough Test vs. Lucie Safarova at French Open Final

Lindsay Gibbs@linzsports Featured ColumnistJune 4, 2015

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The greatest champions often share one common flaw: They don't know when to stop. There is no "off" button.

For Serena Williams on Thursday evening in Paris, that so-called flaw spurred her on to her third French Open final. Despite being obviously ill, Serena was able to come back from the brink in the semifinals to interrupt Timea Bacsinszky's Cinderella story and advance 4-6, 6-3, 6-0.

"I don't think I've ever been this sick," Serena said after the match to Darren Cahill on ESPN2. "I got the flu after my third-round match."

This was her fourth match of the tournament in which she dropped the first set, dating back to her second-round match against the No. 105-ranked German, Anna-Lena Friedsam. Serena also dropped her first sets to former No. 1 Victoria Azarenka in the third round and to young American Sloane Stephens in the fourth.

But this match was different than all of the rest. Serena was clearly lacking energy. She could barely move her feet at times during the first and second sets. She slouched in her chair during changeovers, covered by ice packs, looking like she may never get up. And her forehands and backhands were punctuated by cringe-worthy coughing fits. In short, she looked awful.

"I really thought I was going to lose," she said to Cahill. "I really didn't want to play a third set."

But Serena did play the third set, and she didn't drop a single game, despite Bacsinszky's best efforts. In fact, she won the final 10 games of the match, primarily with determination alone. 

As Jon Wertheim of Sports Illustrated put it, we need to look beyond Serena's illness and recognize the greatness: 

Here’s a quick defense of Serena Williams: she enters these tournaments knowing the best she can do is hold serve. Either she wins and stays at the top. Or she is upset. For all other 127 players, there is the possibility of upward mobility. No one should feel sorry for her. But she faces a unique pressure. And more often than not, she meets it. Say what you will about melodrama and injuries and ailments. Ultimately she wins. She is now 24–3 in Grand Slam semis. She is a match away from her 20th career Major. That should be the story.

Serena will now have a day off to rest and recuperate before she takes the court at Roland Garros on Saturday in her 24th major final. She has only lost four Grand Slam finals in her entire career, and flu or not, she will be the heavy favorite against first-time Slam singles finalist Lucie Safarova.

But that doesn't mean Safarova isn't a worthy opponent. The 28-year-old Czech is playing the best tennis of her career, and her run to this Roland Garros final has been far from easy. She's defeated Sabine Lisicki, Maria Sharapova, Garbine Muguruza and Ana Ivanovic on her way to this championship match, all without dropping a set.

She has a deadly forehand that can be flicked for a winner from almost anywhere on the court, fantastic movement and an aggressive style that can take the racket right out of her opponent's hands. 

Safarova celebrates her big win.
Safarova celebrates her big win.Francois Mori/Associated Press

Throughout her career, Safarova has been known as a talented player without the mental fortitude for success, but over the past year or so, she's been able to turn that around. Last year, she made her first appearance in a Slam semifinal at Wimbledon, and now she's already bested that result.

After going 26 straight Slams throughout the bulk of her 20s without making it past the third round, Safarova has now made it to the fourth round or beyond in four of the last five majors.

She has a great serve, and thanks to her commitment to doubles play—she's into the semifinals of the French Open women's doubles with partner Bethanie Mattek-Sands—the Czech lefty has great reflexes and comfort at the net.

Safarova has never beaten Serena in the eight times they've played, but they have had some incredibly close matches throughout the years and haven't faced off when Safarova was this in-form.

Francois Mori/Associated Press

It remains to be seen how Safarova's newfound confidence and calmness under pressure will translate to the biggest stage in tennis, a Grand Slam final. If she is overwhelmed by the moment and full of unforced errors, not even a flu-ridden Serena will be bothered by her game.

But if Serena isn't 100 percent—and it's hard to imagine she will be in merely two days, although she will hopefully be better than she was on Thursday—and Safarova comes out swinging the way she has this entire fortnight, then this could be a much tougher and more intriguing match than the career comparisons suggest.

We've seen Serena triumph over so much in her legendary career, from injuries to injustices, and now we'll have to see if she can overcome both her ill health and hard-hitting Safarova in order to win her 20th major title and her second French Open title in three years.

One thing is certain: We're going to see Serena give it her all. For better or for worse, she just doesn't know any other way.

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