It is three years now since Serena Williams picked up the phone and called Patrick Mouratoglou, then a relatively little-known coach, to ask if she could use the facilities at his academy on the outskirts of Paris.
A first-round defeat at Roland Garros had left the American shorn of confidence, without a grand slam victory in almost two years and wondering what she could do to get herself back on track.
It turned out to be a masterstroke. In Paris on Saturday, the American clinched her 20th grand slam title with a three-set win over Lucie Safarova to take her tally since teaming up with Mouratoglou to seven grand slams in 12.
By any measure, it is a fantastic record and one that threatens to make Williams the most successful player of all time, on paper as well as in memory. At this rate, Steffi Graf’s Open-era record of 22 may be equalled as soon as the US Open later this year and even the all-time record of 24, held by Australia’s Margaret Court, looks in serious danger.
Williams, who battled through flu to win her third French Open title and her third successive grand slam trophy, has been the best female player in the world for the past decade but her partnership with Mouratoglou has sped her ascent toward the top of the pile.
As the magnitude of grand slam No20 began to sink in at Roland Garros on Saturday night, Williams shared a few insights into their partnership. “It’s been great, that’s a wonderful record,” said the 33-year-old, sitting in a small room beneath the main stadium court. “He’s been really great for me.”
Williams has always been able to get herself out of trouble, as she did in the final here when she came from 2-0 down in the final set, the fifth time she had gone the distance in seven matches over the past fortnight. But Mouratoglou has also galvanised her into being more consistent. Of her 66 career titles, 28 of them have come in the past three years and it appears he has found the key to making an already great player even better.
“We talk before the match and we have a good plan,” Williams said, explaining that their relationship is one where they are both able to be honest with the other. “I was unhappy in the beginning of the week and I told him ‘listen, this isn’t working, we need to change something’,” she said. “We have that relationship where I can tell him ‘Look, this isn’t great’ and it kind of goes back and forth. I think it’s a pretty good record. We want to get more than seven.”
Victory at Wimbledon next month would give her a second “Serena Slam” of four grand slam titles in a row, having done it in 2002-3. Should that happen, Williams would go to New York chasing No22 and a place in history as only the fourth woman to win the grand slam of Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon and US Open in the same calendar year. The pressure may be unbearable, as Graf can attest to from her experience in 1988.
“I remember above all the extreme fatigue I felt in New York,” Graf told the French sports newspaper L’Equipe. “I was feeling the expectation around me that wasn’t mine and that was becoming suffocating and stopping me concentrating on my tournament.
“It was terrible. Everyone was talking to me about this chance and I couldn’t understand the attention. But remember, I was just 19. I was just relieved when it was finished – 27 years on I find it unbelievable to have been able to resist the pressure of the golden slam.”
Graf, though, believes Williams can do it, describing her as “a unique athlete”. She added: “In my opinion she possesses shots and weapons unique in the history of the game.”
Asked who she considers to be the best athletes in any sport, Williams included Billie Jean King and Graf, as well as Muhammad Ali and the basketball star Michael Jordan, who famously wore the No23 shirt. It’s a number Williams says she’s not thinking of yet, but Mouratoglou is. “Of course I care about it,” he said. “For me it’s a goal because it would be something huge. But we’re still far.”
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