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French Open Contenders: Serena

She loves clay, she loves Roland Garros, she loves the pressure of being No.1 - is there a bigger contender at the upcoming French Open than Serena Williams?

Published May 22, 2014 12:15

As much as Maria Sharapova has done a 180 on clay courts the last few years, Serena Williams has too - and though the French Open was the one that kick-started the 'Serena Slam' back in 2002, it wasn't until she returned from her year-long injury and illness lay-off midway through the 2011 season that she became almost unbeatable on clay, especially when she gathers even a drop of steam on it.

"I love playing on clay. I always have," Williams said. "Just sometimes it didn't work out for me."

In the last three years, while she has had big success on her beloved grass and hardcourts - one Wimbledon title, two US Opens, a pair of WTA Championships crowns too - it's been on clay that Williams has unleashed her most fearsome tennis, winning 53 of 55 matches on it. The only two losses were opening round shockers - her famous loss to Virginie Razzano at the French Open in 2012, and another, somewhat quieter loss to Jana Cepelova at the Family Circle Cup in Charleston this year.

But apart from a few mid-tournament withdrawals due to injury, once she gets through that first match, she's been going all the way to the title the last three years - two in 2012 (Charleston and Madrid), four in 2013 (Charleston, Madrid, Rome and the French Open) and one so far in 2014 (Rome).

While she's been professing her love for the surface lately, and with her trademark aura of confidence strong as ever, Williams is fully aware that the first hurdle can sometimes be the trickiest for her.

"I take it one match at a time now," she said. "At this stage of my career, with all of the experience I've had, I try not to underestimate any opponent. I just try to do the best I can in every match."

Williams will be going for her 18th overall Grand Slam title, which would tie her for second place in the Open Era alongside fellow WTA legends Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova. Before Australia this year, where Williams fell fourth round, Evert and Navratilova were asked about Williams catching them.

"I would be very excited," Evert said. "It's going to happen sooner or later. In the next few years if she stays healthy, she's going to win more than 18. She can get to 22 if she stays healthy and motivated.

"If she gets to 18, I wouldn't feel like she's in good company, but Martina and I are in good company."

Navratilova echoed Evert's sentiment. "It's just a matter of time before she passes us. Four or five years ago I didn't think she would get there, but the last couple of years she's really caught up. And I think she can go into the 20s the way she's playing and feeling - the sky's really the limit for her.

"Also, more power to her that she can keep doing it into her 30s. That's what's most impressive to me."

Funnily enough, for someone with the Open Era record for most Australian Opens, Melbourne is the only Grand Slam stop Williams hasn't conquered since the aforementioned year-long lay-off - but in the case of this year, that might be a plus for her. She talked about that during her run to the Rome title.

"The fact that I didn't win the first Slam of the year puts a lot less pressure on me for the French Open," she said. "Had I won the first one of the year I still would have felt great, but now I'm going into Paris with much less pressure. Hopefully I can keep doing well. I'm really prepared for Roland Garros."

Speaking of pressure, the way Williams embraces pressure - the incredible way she does it - can be shown by the numbers. This is the 12th time the American goes into a Grand Slam as the World No.1, and she's 7-for-11 in those instances (63.6%). When she's not World No.1, she's 10-for-43 (23.3%).

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