PARIS -- Eleven years ago, Serena Williams stood here on Court Philippe-Chatrier, her voice catching with emotion, tears filling her eyes.

“It’s all about, for me, how you recover,” she told the Roland Garros crowd. “I think I’ve always said a champion isn’t about how much they win, but it’s about how they recover from their downs, whether it’s an injury or whether it’s a loss.”

The 31-year-old American had just captured her first French Open title since 2002 but seemed overcome by the memories of all those down times in recent years. Two foot operations and a treatment for blood clots in her lungs reduced her schedule to a total of only 55 matches in 2010 and 2011. Williams rallied the next season, but in terms of personal milestones that paled in comparison to the triumphs of 2013.

Serena played 83 matches, won 78 of them, at a 94-percent clip -- all career highs. Over the course of four months, Williams put together a 34-match winning streak that included five consecutive titles: Miami, Charleston, Madrid, Rome and Paris.

Those last three are of great interest as the Roland Garros fortnight looms. 

For it’s the only time any woman has won consecutive titles in Madrid, Rome and Paris -- the triple crown of European red clay. It could happen again in two weeks if World No.1 Iga Swiatek collects her fourth French Open title in five years.

Coming off wins in Madrid and Rome -- she beat No.2 Aryna Sabalenka in both finals -- Swiatek is looking close to unbeatable. Which led to the following exchange after the final in Rome:

Question: How good was that?

Swiatek: I mean, you tell me. 

Question: It looked pretty amazing where you demolished the second-best player in the world. 

Swiatek: I mean, I was playing well and solid. I used my chances. For sure this match looked a little bit different than in Madrid. I felt like I’m putting a lot of pressure.”

No doubt, she’ll feel some of that pressure herself if she goes deep at the French Open. But for now, that triple is a one-time event. Let’s revisit Williams’ uplifting 2013 spring run through the most famous clay courts in Europe:

Williams began the year by taking the title in Brisbane but fell to Sloane Stephens in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open. On Feb. 18, she lost to Marion Bartoli in Dubai’s Round of 16. She didn’t lose again for 132 days.



Red clay was probably the only surface that didn’t add significant sizzle to Williams’s big, thumping game. It neutralized her serve and extended rallies, giving her sometimes better-moving opponents a fighting chance. Coming off titles in Miami and Charleston and with a pair of Federation Cup wins, she entered Madrid with a 13-match win streak.

It had been more than a decade since she’d been to a red-clay final, but when she defeated Italian Sara Errani 7-5, 6-2, Williams was a win away from earning her 50th career title.

“I feel this whole tournament I have only played clay-court opponents,” Williams said. “All have been smaller than me. Tomorrow will be a different game, more power.”

That’s because the other semifinal featured Maria Sharapova and Ana Ivanovic. When Sharapova advanced, it brought high stakes to the final; Williams’s No.1 ranking would be in play.

It never came to that. She was a 6-1, 6-4 winner in less than 80 minutes. Sharapova, who led 3-1 in the second set, hadn’t beaten Williams in nine years and now trailed the head-to-head series by a 13-2 count. Williams became only the 10th woman to win 50 WTA Tour titles.

"I don’t know if it’s because of what I went through,” Williams said. “I just feel like I’m so fortunate to be out there and healthy and to have an opportunity to play something and be really good at it.”

It was a timely win for Williams because, two weeks later, Sharapova would be defending her French Open title. 


Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

A 21-year-old qualifier from Romania made a stir here, defeating three Top 20 players, including No.4 Agnieszka Radwanska, to reach the semifinal. Simona Halep actually scored an early break against Williams but ultimately fell 6-3, 6-0.

Williams’ win streak rose to 23 -- 15 straight on clay -- and she contemplated her fourth straight title, at Foro Italico. Her opponent? Third-seeded Victoria Azarenka, who defeated Errani 6-0, 7-5.

Despite the one-sided score against Halep, Williams wasn’t happy with her game -- particularly the serve -- and headed straight to the practice courts. This, after dropping only 10 games in four matches.

The head-to-head record with Azarenka was a one-sided 11-2 for Williams, but there were reasons to believe this one might be close. Azarenka began 2012 by winning 26 straight matches and owned the No.1 ranking for much of the year. Three months earlier, Azarenka had prevailed in the three-set Doha final.

So much for history. Williams broke her four times in the first set and coasted to a 6-1, 6-3 victory. It came 11 years after her first title in Rome, a city she adored. Her speech at the trophy presentation in jam-packed Stadio Centrale was stylish and sincere -- completely in Italian. 

Thus, she headed to Roland Garros as the favorite, but there were some significant scars to overcome.


Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

In 2012, the unthinkable happened.

Williams suffered the only first-round Grand Slam loss of her career to this point -- to Virginie Razzano, the No.111-ranked player in the world.

It was with this baggage that Williams entered the 2013 event. All she did was win her first four matches, dropping 10 total games. And then she ran into Svetlana Kuznetsova in the quarterfinals.

They split the first two sets, and Kuznetsova took a 2-0 lead in the third -- and had three break points for a larger, possibly insurmountable margin. Since winning the 2002 title, Williams had lost in the quarters four times. She could be forgiven for thinking it might happen again.

“That was just a brief, brief, brief, like fleeting thought,” she said later. “And after that it was just, ‘Let’s just play this match and let’s just do the best that I can.’”

That best was good enough, as Williams won five straight games and came back to win 6-1, 3-6, 6-3 and advance to her first Roland Garros semifinal since 2003.

It was Errani standing in the way again, but Williams threw down a classic effort, sending the Italian home with only a single game in a 46-minute rout. She had 40 winners to only two for Errani. That pushed her unbeaten streak to 30 matches.

Sharapova, the defending champion, would pose a greater threat. She had won her previous 13 matches in Paris. This would be the first major final between the two top-ranked players in more than nine years -- and the first at Roland Garros in 18.

“Against Maria, I will have to prepare slightly differently,” Williams said. “She’s a great player. But it’s magnificent to be back in the final after 11 years.”

Carried by the agony of that first-round loss the year before -- and the thrill of that victory in 2002 -- Williams ran away from Sharapova 6-4, 6-4.

Sharapova said that Williams served “harder than David Ferrer,” who would face seven-time champion Rafael Nadal the next day.

Williams said she was so nervous serving it out that she wasn’t sure she could keep the ball in the court.

“No joke,” she told reporters. “The one groundstroke I did hit went, like, 100 feet out. I thought to myself, `Look, Serena, you’ve just got to hit aces. That’s your only choice.”

There were three aces in her last service game: 118 miles per hour, 121 mph and, finally, on match point, 123.

It was her 16th Grand Slam singles title.

Williams became the oldest woman to win the French Open in more than four decades and the oldest at any Grand Slam since Martina Navratilova was 33 at Wimbledon in 1990.

“'I really believe age is a number at this point, because I have never felt so fit,” Williams said. “I feel great. I look great.”

She would go on to win her first three matches at Wimbledon before running into Sabine Lisicki, a Round of 16 winner in three sets. It was Williams’ first loss after 34 consecutive wins.

And now …

Iga Swiatek comes in to this year’s French Open with a more modest 12-match winning streak; her last loss was to Elena Rybakina in the semifinals at Stuttgart. Still, the very real possibility of a Madrid, Rome, Paris sweep exists for the World No.1.

After defeating Sabalenka in the Rome final, Swiatek was asked if she knew how many players had won consecutive titles in Madrid, Rome and Paris.

“Rafa?” she asked.

Correct, three times in 2005, 2010 and 2013.

“Serena?” she continued.

Yes, in 2013. Is Iga the favorite here in Paris to do it a second time?

“Well,” Swiatek said. “I’m No.1, so I’m the favorite everywhere if you look at rankings. But rankings don’t play, so ...  I’ll do everything step by step and we’ll see.”