If Serena Williams can bagel a fitter, younger opponent in the third set of a semi-final at a slam while appearing to be operating on half a lung and anaesthetised legs – as she did to beat the bewildered Timea Bacsinszky on Thursday – her opponent in Saturday’s final, Lucie Safarova, has no chance.
It was a remarkable performance in every way. The two-times champion, the oldest player left standing at 33, coughed and groaned, sweating heavily and dragging her feet across the clay of Court Philippe Chatrier for nearly two hours on the hottest day of the tournament to come back from a set and 3-2 in the second, and won 10 games in a row for a 4-6, 6-3, 6-0 victory she will cherish among many great fightbacks.
“I don’t think I have ever been this sick. I can’t believe I won because I got the flu after my third-round match and haven’t been getting better,” Williams told ESPN. “Hopefully, this is the worst and I thought I was going to lose and suddenly I was one set all and thought ‘I really don’t feel like playing a third set because I am so tired’. It is a blessing.”
The former Wimbledon champion Marion Bartoli, one of the American’s closest friends, said on ITV: “She found a way inside her soul, I am completely speechless. I just hope she is around for many years to come.”
Drama queen or queen of drama? Media opinion fell slightly in Williams’s favour, through lack of proof to the contrary rather than sentiment, it has to be said, and that is not altogether fair on a remarkable player in sight of her 20th slam title, and someone with a history of illness in recent years.
At times before she revived mid-match, she could do little more than watch as the ball flew by her and the points piled up for Bacsinszky. Between games, she slumped in her seat and looked near tears. She tried to bounce some life back into her legs in the second set and chased down as many drop shots and lobs as she could, but generally had to rely on single-shot winners to stay in the match.
Her sister, Venus, shouted from courtside: “Stay strong!” and her spirits seemed to lift in bursts of brilliance. “Keep going!”
Not quite so supportive was the British No9, Tara Moore, who tweeted: “Not only is serena one of the best women players of all time, she’s also one of the best actresses #suckitup #learnhowtolose #pathetic”, to which the former British No1 Laura Robson, still recuperating from wrist and hamstring injuries, felt compelled to reply: “I’m not convinced the pathetic hashtag can apply to one of the best players of all time? #19slams” before removing her tweet – perhaps at Moore’s request?
Still, Williams got the win. And she did when obviously suffering, whatever the off-court diagnoses – just as she was before she beat Maria Sharapova in the Australian Open final this year.
The world No1 has two days to recover before she defends her title against Safarova, the in-form Czech who earlier beat the former champion Ana Ivanovic 7-5, 7-5 in a little under two hours on a warm, pleasant afternoon.
Williams, however, must be concerned about her health because these coughing fits have been recurring at major tournaments. At Wimbledon last year, she broke down on court at the start of her doubles match alongside her sister, Venus, and left the grounds hurriedly, still wearing her tennis outfit, and refusing to talk to the media.
Previously, she was off the Tour for 17 months after suffering a life-threatening pulmonary embolism, before returning in triumph at Wimbledon to lift her fifth title there.
In Paris, she has suffered most of the tournament with her breathing and looked decidedly out of sorts leading up to the quarter-finals as she dropped the first set against each of Anna-Lena Friedsam, ranked 105 in the world, Victoria Azarenka and Sloane Stephens, before returning to something like her best form in two sets against the 17th seed, Sara Errani, on Tuesday.
Safarova, who put Sharapova out in the fourth round, was too sure in her ground strokes for the seventh seed Ivanovic, who won this title in 2008, cheered on here again by the German footballer Bastian Schweinsteiger. She struck seven aces and eight double faults, but still Ivanovic could not capitalise on her inconsistency with ball in hand, winning just two of 10 break points. It was a game of little rhythm, 119 of the 160 rallies lasting less four shots or fewer.
“When I realised I finally can be in the finals, I got a little bit tense,” Safarova said. “It’s just amazing. The happiness is unreal. It’s my 12th year on Tour.”
Dinara Safina tweeted: “She is the nicest girl on tour”. Safarova, blushed, and said: “I’ve got a few good friends on tour. It’s not easy when you play them, but that’s the life.”
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