Even In The First Round, Serena’s The Drama Queen

By Chuck Culpepper
Updated: May 28, 2007

PARIS – Melodrama and victory have been known to mingle in the immediate vicinity of Serena Williams, so here we go with her first French Open since 2004, both elements turning up even before Monday did. This could get rowdy. Already the diva has played a first-round match that took 8 hours and 29 minutes, counting six hours of mid-match rain delay here in Wimbledon, France. Already she has lost a set. Already her busy brain has bustled. Down a set in what would become a 5-7, 6-1, 6-1 victory over 91st-ranked Tsvetana Pironkova, that brain pondered the unique French Open schedule that starts this Grand Slam on Sunday, not Monday. “I was thinking there’s no way I’m going to go home on Sunday, you know,” she said. “It’s not even Monday!” It also mulled her unbeaten record in Grand Slam first rounds, which by now stands at 30-0, including even a win over then-No. 9 Irina Spirlea as a 16-year-old in the 1998 Australian Open. “So it’s like, whew, I can breathe now,” she said. “It’s like my goal in life is to stay not losing in the first round of a Grand Slam.” It imagined Pironkova’s fate should the 19-year-old Bulgarian eliminate Williams. “And I knew that if I did go down, then there’s a 99.9% chance that she would not win the next round,” Williams said. “So that encouraged me to even fight harder.” And as she won 12 of 13 games, looked sublime and overwhelmed Pironkova, Williams’ mind even revisited 1998, her first French, her first Grand Slam fourth round, her 6-4, 5-2 lead over Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario, and the subsequent disintegration of that lead. “I swear that is probably the most disappointing match of my career,” she said, still wishing she’d served and volleyed then, and adding, “I thought about that today; I thought, OK, so I’m up, but that doesn’t mean anything because I was up on this very court against Sanchez and she came back.” So busy was the mind of the eight-time Grand Slam champion and reigning Australian Open champion, it even took a turn at umpiring. Facing Pironkova’s third set point at 5-4 in the first set and with a London drizzle falling on the west edge of Paris, Williams approached chair umpire Sandra de Jenken with the gentle suggestion that play halt. She found the lines slick. De Jenken gently suggested that play continue. Play continued, and the eighth-seeded Williams saved that set point, then saved another, then broke Pironkova for 5-5, then suffered a break to trail 6-5, then walked out for the 12th game, then walked back to her chair, draped her shoulders with a pink-and-plum jacket and waited for the delay. The delay came as if on cue, as if past champions get to call some rain delays. The players exited, the tarp came on, and TV cameras recorded a little tete-a-tete in the hallway between Williams and her father, Richard. Upon return, six hours later at 6:30 p.m., in pink-sweater evening wear, she lost the next two games to trail 7-5, 1-0, then showed how danger makes her dangerous. “She started to hit the ball harder, she didn’t make so many errors like the first set and, yeah, I think that’s it,” Pironkova said. The ensuing six-game whoosh sent Richard Williams out of the stands and into the tunnel, apparently contented, and he later said, “I told you that girl couldn’t keep up that pace,” and, “All Serena had to do was hit to her forehand,” and, “She’s a tough girl. How old is she? She’s got a good future.” She’s got a pretty fair past, its crux a 2-6, 6-0, 9-7 win over Venus Williams in the first round of the 2006 Australian Open, although Serena Williams lends a caveat: “I personally would have propelled myself after that, so she’s still at 91, so I don’t know.” But then, Williams had to feel authoritative. In going from 25 unforced errors in the first set to eight in the second and nine in the third, with 13 winners in each of the second and third, she’d shown form that could win this event and put her halfway to the 2007 Grand Slam. By the third set, “I was just sliding and sliding and it felt good,” Williams said, calling it “the clay court game that I know to play.” Off she went to the second round against either Venezuelan Milagros Sequera or Frenchwoman Virginie Razzano, after a first round on a Sunday when rain postponed every match but seven, a first round already freighted enough that a French TV commentator pegged Williams as being near tears. “No, no,” she said. “I just think I make these faces that I have to stop making, because I hate when I watch film and I hate when I see those faces. I’m the baby. I was the youngest. I was always treated the best. I’m a whiner, a complainer. It doesn’t help.”