Top seed Serena Williams survived a gamely challenge from Lucie Safarova on Saturday to capture her third French Open championship. The 6-3, 6-7, 6-2 victory gives the era's most dominant women's player 20 career Grand Slam singles titles.
There were question marks on both sides coming into the match. Safarova, a 28-year-old late bloomer, was playing on the Grand Slam final stage for the first time, an accomplishment that often comes with plenty of added nerves.
Williams is obviously no stranger to the spotlight, but she's been battling an illness during the latter stages of the tournament. ESPN.com passed along a statement that the American released ahead of the match about trying to get back to full strength.
"I think I have some kind of flu, which makes it tough, because it's just a matter of resting and keeping hydrated—there's not much else I can do," Williams stated. "I've felt really cold so I'm just fighting that, trying to sweat it out."
She certainly looked healthier in the early stages of the final than she did late in her semifinal triumph over Timea Bacsinszky. Her movement between points was still sluggish, but she was striking the ball well and was far more emotionally involved, letting out a loud "come on!" after securing the first break.
Piers Newbery of BBC Sport noted her strong play early on:
Tennis coach Martyn Etheridge provided his breakdown:
Williams served out the rest of the set in pretty routine fashion. Safarova was doing her best to match the power of the top-ranked player in the world, but it translated into just five winners. Too often she found herself getting pushed around the court, unable to dictate points.
Matt Cronin of Tennis Reporters correctly stated the underdog just wasn't good enough:
Jim Caple of ESPN pointed out it made an already difficult challenge that much tougher:
The second set featured far more drama.
Williams grabbed the early edge with a couple of breaks to take a 4-1 lead. At that point it seemed like the match was all but over, but Safarova's defensive play improved and the top seed lost her way from the service line with a steady string of double faults.
Four games later, it was a 5-4 Safarova lead. Brad Gilbert of ESPN highlighted the surprising turnaround:
Williams earned another break for a chance to serve out the match at 6-5, but once again, Safarova rose to the occasion to break back and force a tiebreak.
The No. 13 seed was simply the better player in the breaker, running down balls in every corner of the court while Williams was content to stand on the baseline and swing away. And just like that, the match was tied at one set apiece.
Chris Fowler of ESPN credited the underdog:
Brian Phillips of Grantland discussed the difference in demeanor:
Then, as if it was as simple as flicking a switch, overwhelming Serena returned. It was a matter of finding the fighting spirit that allowed her to win so many championships in the past. On Saturday, it disappeared for a while but returned in time to save the match.
After winning the final 10 games of the match to edge Bacsinszky in the semifinal, she won the last six to defeat Safarova and win the title.
BBC Tennis provided her career breakdown:
ESPN Stats and Info showed where she stands in the Open Era:
For Safarova, the loss is disappointing but still a sign of progress. She didn't make a Grand Slam semifinal in her first nine years playing the marquee events. Now she's made two out of the past four, including a final. She just faced a better player Saturday.
Williams' focus now shifts to Wimbledon. She's won the first two majors of the season, keeping the dream of a calendar Grand Slam alive. It's something she hasn't accomplished in her storied career, with this being the first time she won both the Australian and French in the same year.
The No. 1 player in the world wasn't at her best over the past two weeks at Roland Garros and won the championship anyway. It illustrates the gap between her and everybody else, making her the clear favorite heading to the All England Club.
A win there would allow her to hold all four major titles at once and make her latest title defense at the U.S. Open even more intriguing with a calendar Grand Slam on the line.