Dubai: It’s a well-known fact that not many of the current players can consistently challenge Serena Williams when she is fit and healthy.
Williams is arguably the greatest player to have ever held a tennis racket and her collection of 23 Grand Slam titles is testimony to that boast. Yes, the women’s tour has been blessed with many greats — Steffi Graf, Martina Navratilova, Margaret Court and Chris Evert, but Williams stands out as someone who has almost totally dominated her sport on every continent and on surface.
Provided she is fit and healthy.
So is she? The former world No. 1 has not looked like she is quite at peak form in the three tournaments that she has played in this season starting with the Australian Open. She was also forced to withdraw from last week’s Italian Open, a crucial dress-rehearsal for the gruelling fortnight at Roland Garros, with a recurring knee injury.
Williams, now 37, has not won a title since 2017 having only returned to the tour in March 2018 after giving birth to her daughter.
But Martin Blackman, general manager for player development with the United States Tennis Association (USTA), believes that she still is a big threat to the likes of Simona Halep, Naomi Osaka, Sloane Stephens and Petra Kvitova who come into the French Open with more appeal.
“Hopefully Serena is healthy enough to play,” Blackman said. “She’s such a professional that she doesn’t play unless she’s healthy, especially Grand Slams,” he said of the three-times French champion, who is currently ranked No. 10 in the world. “So if she does, I think with every match that she wins she becomes a bigger and bigger threat.”
Serena has also drawn what appears to be a comfortable opening passage that could lead her to the quarter-finals where, all going well, she will meet top-seeded Osaka.
Williams also boasts a 28-4 record on the red clay of Roland Garros, which makes her even more dangerous and the best chance that the United States has of flying the flag at the Paris showpiece.
Blackman, who is tasked with identifying and developing the next generation of world-class American tennis players, also believes that Sloane Stephens, last year’s French Open finalist and Madison Keys, who was beaten by Stephens in the semis, have the potential to trouble the best on the slow, red Parisian courts.
“Clay is a great surface for Sloane,” Blackman said. “She’s such a good mover, she’s so good at opening the court, and she has so many different ways to hurt you. And she is getting more and more comfortable at the net.”
“Madison recently made a coaching change, she’s working with (Juan) Nacho Todero and I think they are in a really good place,” Blackman added.
“She’s healthy, she’s fit and if she gets to the second week, she’s super dangerous.”
Like Williams, former world No. 1 Victoria Azarenka has had her share of struggles both on and off the court and has said that she is determined to return to the top of the sport.
Two-and-a-half years after having her first child, Leo, the Belarusian star is staying positive and even took to her twitter account to proclaim: ‘Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass, it’s about learning how to dance in the rain.’
Despite her less than encouraging 8-14 recent record, Azarenka, ranked 44th in the world, appears to be rebuilding her game as evidenced by a rousing win last week at the Italian Open against Elina Svitolina, the event’s defending champion, on her way to the quarter-finals.
Which brings us to the defending champion, Simona Halep, seeded third this year, who is also in the top half of the draw, along with sixth-seeded Petra Kvitova and Karolina Pliskova, who is ranked No. 2 after winning the Italian Open on Sunday.
Looks like a very open French Open, where fitness and resolve will hold the key to who will lift the coveted Suzanne-Lenglen Cup on June 9.
— With inputs from Reuters