Serena Williams is closing in on Steffi Graf.
Despite being sapped by a nasty flu for much of the last week, the American beat Lucie Safarova 6-3 6-7 (2) 6-2 to win the French Open on Saturday and claim a landmark 20th major.
“It seems a little bit like a dream,” Williams told reporters. “Like, is this really my life? Is this really happening right now? So yeah, it’s really kind of weird.”
But as the score suggested, this was no walk in the Bois de Boulogne – a park close to Roland Garros – for Williams against the Czech. The way the tournament unfolded for the 33-year-old, perhaps it should have been expected.
Williams did the almost unthinkable by blowing a 4-1 advantage in the second set and trailed 2-0 in the third.
She recovered, to no one’s surprise, and now only Graf has more majors in the Open Era at 22. With Williams going strong in her early 30s, Graf’s record is under serious threat.
The world No. 1 even has a realistic chance of matching the German in 2015, since she’s claimed five Wimbledon titles and is the three-time defending champion at the U.S. Open.
Of course that would mean Williams winning all four majors in a season, something not accomplished since Graf did it in 1988.
But who’d rule her out?
Not her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou.
“I think it’s the most difficult thing to do in tennis,” Mouratoglou told reporters. “That’s why it doesn’t happen often. But as she won the first two, why not believe it’s possible? And second, with her, everything is possible.”
By winning in Melbourne and Paris, Williams already became the first player since Jennifer Capriati in 2001 to claim the first two grand slams in the same season.
Heading into Saturday, it looked as if Williams might be vulnerable against Safarova, the 13th seed who was making her debut in a grand slam final.
Williams said via a question-and-answer session released by the tournament Friday she had been suffering from the flu and “collapsed” after her draining, comeback victory in three sets in the semifinals against Timea Bacsinszky.
She didn’t practice Friday, either, opting to stay at her apartment in Paris and rest.
“She had so much fever,” said Mouratoglou. “She stayed in bed the whole day. She tried to walk a little bit. It wasn’t brilliant so she came back.”
The Frenchman added that on Saturday her condition improved and the fever disappeared.
“I hit a little bit today in the morning and I hit them pretty well,” said Williams. “I was just like, ‘Okay, I have been playing for over 30 years, I know I can at least play tennis.’ After that I just went out to play a match.”
When Williams went off court just before the final was about to begin, a dramatic afternoon seemed on the cards. It ended up that way, though no one would have predicted it when Williams surged to a huge lead in the second set.
Rallying from a set down to overcome Anna-Lena Friedsam, Victoria Azarenka, Sloane Stephens and then Bacsinszky, overturning a 2-0 deficit in the third was merely child’s play for Williams.
Of the seven majors they’ve won together in three years, Mouratoglou said this year in Paris marked Williams’ second-most difficult path to glory behind Wimbledon in 2012. Williams, meanwhile, said it topped her entire list.
“Here it was very difficult because she was very sick,” said Mouratoglou. “She was without energy in matches, and to find the energy, she found emotions that were very deep.”
The malaise, coupled with the aftereffects of an elbow injury that forced her to withdraw from the Italian Open in Rome, led to Williams’ usually dominant serve only working in spurts this tournament – and little changed in the final.
In the first set Williams struck four aces and captured 80% of her first-serve points.
Her return game was working, too. Williams manufactured the first break by ripping a cross-court return for 3-1.
Safarova, 0-8 against Williams prior to the final, saved a set point with a forehand winner that wrong-footed her foe but Williams held serve a game later.
It was the first time Safarova dropped a set all tournament.
When Williams stormed to the double-break lead in the second, the trophy presentation was only moments away. Williams may have also thought it, given how she celebrated when breaking for 4-1 – raising her arms in the air.
But Williams inexplicably plummeted, Safarova’s level improved and double faults on break points in the sixth and eighth games made the score 4-4. Overall Williams hit five double faults in the second.
She broke with a stunning backhand cross-court return for 6-5 yet once again couldn’t complete the job.
Safarova forced a tiebreak with a backhand winner down the line. The crowd, wanting more tennis, approved.
They were even louder when Williams’ forehand sailed into the set to officially force a decider.
Williams, not prone to panicking, nonetheless had to be slightly alarmed when trailing by a break in the third.
Asked what he felt when Safarova led 2-0, Czech Fed Cup captain Petr Pala told CNN, “I thought she had a chance. But it’s against Serena, so winning is still far away.”
Could Williams, used to seeing her opponents this tournament not able to maintain leads, be the one crumbling? Nope.
Pumping herself up with some less than gentle language during the changeover at 2-1, Williams awoke. She surged to nine straight points and moved ahead 3-2.
This time there was no comeback for Safarova, who fell behind 4-2 when her backhand down the line sailed long.
“When she was on, she was just serving amazing and going for the returns, pressuring me right away,” said Safarova, who contests the doubles final Sunday with Bethanie Mattek-Sands. “It’s just hard to do anything with that.”
Williams wrapped up her third French Open title – irrespective of it being her least productive grand slam, Mouratoglou said clay is her favorite surface – by forcing an error.
She paused for a moment, then dropped her racket in disbelief. Later she exchanged a hug with Mouratoglou.
Novak Djokovic, like Williams a world No. 1 and the champion at the Australian Open, plays in Sunday’s men’s final against Stan Wawrinka. Djokovic completed a semifinal win over Andy Murray earlier Saturday, 6-3 6-3 5-7 5-7 6-1.
If he triumphs, then Djokovic becomes the eighth man in history to win all four majors.
But Saturday belonged to Williams, even if she wasn’t in the mood to do much partying.
“I just want to go to bed,” she said.