French Open: Dare We Ask—Is Serena the Most Clutch Performer in Sports History?



By Bill Simons

Something was wrong.

There were few wheezes or wobbles. There were no implosions, no collapses, no blank stares, no startling recoveries and virtually no angst.

Earlier at the French Open, Serena Williams had found herself in an almost perpetual turmoil as she fell behind one foe after another: an unheralded German with a triple-digit ranking, a two-time Aussie Open champ, a rising American rival, and a suddenly sizzling Swiss with a great backstory.

But today, at least for awhile, the story was different.

Instead of lagging behind, Serena was cruising with an impassive ease in a drama-free, ‘Tennis is easy’ final. Up 6-3, 4-1, she was dismissing the appealing but ineffective Czech Lucie Safarova with a surgical precision—cruise control. Backstage handlers were shining the trophy. In her head, Serena may well have been rehearsing her French victory speech, and pundits were already preparing headlines. They first noted that Williams could tie Steffi Graf’s record of 22 Slams at the US Open. Then they wondered just how many more years the 33-year-old could keep up her stunning winning ways.


In the second set, Serena couldn’t keep up her winning ways. Although just two games from victory, she suddenly went off the boil. The best serve in the history of the game suddenly began to misfire. The best closer in the game couldn’t close.

Yes, for nearly an hour Safarova was making it abundantly clear that she was playing in her first Slam. Earlier in the tourney she had beaten Grand Slam champions Maria Sharapova and Ana Ivanovic. She hadn’t lost a set, and after of eleven years of toil she would at last, on Monday, be ranked in the top 10.

But today she had no answers for Williams’s power, pace and precision. Her footwork poor, her nerves on display, the 28-year-old was being overpowered. Clearly, she would lose in less than an hour. Yet in this sport you can’t play out the clock. Even great champions have nerves. Serena blinked.

In the second set she played a loose sixth game, hitting her fifth double fault to enable Safarova to break. Now Safarova was down just one break at 2-4, as commentator Nick Lester said, “Well, at least [she] has a crumb of hope.”  But the Czech wanted more. She promptly held serve with ease. At least the set would be competitive. Hitting hard, returning with confidence and moving well, Safarova stepped up, and miracle of miracles, broke a second time, as Serena again double-faulted and lost her third straight game. Serena shrieked loud as her groundies flew wild. “All hell broke loose,” noted Mary Carillo.

Williams did break to serve for the match at 6-5, but Safarova’s game grew ever sharper as she broke back, won a record sixth-straight tiebreak in the tournament, and quickly took the first two games of the decisive third set. As for Serena, her game was a mess. In a frenzy, facing an inexplicable loss, she offered a succinct X-rated on-court analysis: “You better play better, you f—ing s–k.”

Turns out Serena had Safarova right where she wanted. Down 0-2 in the third, Serena was perfectly positioned to unleash one of her ferocious comebacks—her fifth in seven Roland Garros matches. Blasting cross-court backhands, hitting deep and finding the corners with her forehand, she dictated with her serve. Safarova’s level dipped, and soon she was again at sea, losing six straight games to fall in just over two hours, 6-3. 6-7 (2), 6-2.

Afterward, the Czech, beaming even in defeat, told the crowd of 15,000, “I have so many emotions.”

Meanwhile, after her 273rd Grand Slam win, Serena was hugging her 20th Slam trophy. Just three years ago, she had suffered a humbling first-round French Open defeat. But she got a new coach and boyfriend, Patrick Mouratoglou, and has been on a roll ever since. Not only has her French improved brilliantly so she can she speak beautifully in public—the third-oldest woman on the tour has also become the first player since Jennifer Capriati back in 2001 to win the Australian and French Opens back-to-back. If she triumphs at Wimbledon in July, she will achieve her second “Serena Slam” (four straight majors). As for today, she yet again proved that she has the best stroke in woman’s tennis—her serve.

On tour now, Serena’s only true foe is herself. No one can really touch her. (Just ask Maria Sharapova, and remember that all the rest of today’s active players have just 21 Slams between them.) And, may we note, this side of Michael Jordan, she just might be the best clutch, come-from-behind athlete in sports history.

After all, as Lucie Safarova knows far too well, when Ms. Serena gets in gear and gets rolling on one of her ferocious comeback runs, you better take cover.

She’s a hurricane who will not be stopped. C’est vrai.