Saturday’s victory at Roland Garros provided a perfectly formed conclusion to the latest chapter of Serena Williams’s story, which was already one of the most extraordinary tales in sport.
This is Serena Williams 16 Grand Slam titles, her second French Open title and her first since 2002.
While her comeback from illness and injury officially started at Eastbourne in 2011, it was after last year’s French Open that Williams started to rediscover her mojo.
A shocking first-round defeat to Virginie Razzano sent her out to the suburbs west of Paris to visit the academy run by Patrick Mouratoglou.
A likeable, urbane Frenchman, Mouratoglou went on to become not only her coach but her partner. Over the last year, he has succeeded in rekindling her passion and self-belief. And on Saturday, when Williams outclassed Maria Sharapova 6-4, 6-4 on Court Philippe Chatrier, her journey came full circle.
“Je suis incroyable,” she said, while attempting to conduct her post-match interview in French. She probably meant “I can’t believe it,” but the phrase came out as “I am incredible,” which is probably closer to the truth.
This was an almost flawless performance from Williams, who never gave her opponent room to breathe. Sharapova actually played a fine match, serving well and unleashing everything she had into her favourite crosscourt forehand. But it is so difficult to attack an in-form Williams because she can shut you down with the quality of her serve.
The second set was a case in point. Sharapova battled with everything she had before finally conceding a break in the fourth game.
And then it was an almost impossible challenge to get back on level terms with a woman who was regularly exceeding 120mph on her first serve. Appropriately enough, the match finished with an ace.
“I think growing up with Venus, she’s serving so big, I was like, ‘I want to serve big, too,’” said Williams afterwards. “In that last game I was just so nervous. I thought, I’m not going to be able to hit groundstrokes [and] 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.’”
As Sharapova pointed out afterwards, Williams’s service stats compared favourably to those of David Ferrer in his semi-final on Friday night.
“We know she’s going to be able to hit a big serve,” said Sharapova. “I think if I was built like Serena I hope I’d be able to hit a big serve like that, too. I mean …”
She trailed off, perhaps realising that she was moving towards dangerous territory there. Martina Hingis has never lived down her comments about Amelie Mauresmo’s shoulders, although those did have an extra element of homophobia that would not apply here.
Tennis can be an incestuous world, and it was Williams’s relationship with the highly rated male player Grigor Dimitrov – who is now dating Sharapova, oddly enough – that first brought her into contact with Mouratoglou.
“I met Serena because she was friends with Grigor and I was coaching him,” said Mouratoglou last night, “so I would see her at the tournaments. I thank him really every day.”
At the point when they started training together, Williams was already the most powerful player on the WTA tour and arguably the most complete.
The only shot she never hit was the drop shot. When you can reliably knock the racket out of your opponent’s hands with the venom of your groundstrokes, where is the need for touch?
But there were weaknesses too. Williams plays a “first strike” game – which means that she prefers not to rally but to finish the point the first time she gets a clean swing at the ball. It is a method that necessarily has small margins and can produce a high number of errors. When the rhythm was off, as it was against Razzano last year, she could not adapt.
Mouratoglou’s influence has brought a new sense of calmness, as well as a sensible trade-off on Williams’s shots: she has given up a little of her abundant speed through the air in order to hit with more spin and control. And he has also improved her French, Saturday’s erratic speech notwithstanding.
“I have always had a wonderful relationship with Paris,” said Williams. “Incidentally, the first tournament I ever won was here.”
But she also pointed out that the crowd has not always been on her side. During her quarter-final against Justine Henin in 2003 she was booed, a slight she has never forgotten.
Now, after this’s masterclass, Williams stands on 16 grand slam titles. That puts her six behind Steffi Graf, the leading player of the modern era, and eight behind Margaret Court.
Can she overtake them? History is against her, given that – at 31 years and 256 days – she has just became the oldest woman to win Roland Garros.
But then, as she put it: “I really believe age is a number at this point, because I have never felt so fit. I feel great. I look great.”
Asked whether she would retire at the top, like Greta Garbo, she laughed. “Wow, what an analogy. I definitely want to go out at my peak. That’s my goal. But have I peaked yet?”
Heading into the grass-court season, Williams’s rivals must be fearing the worst. She is more motivated than perhaps she has ever been, and better prepared too.
This might have been only her second French Open title, and her first since 2002, but Wimbledon has been a happier hunting ground over the years. “Grass is the surface that is easiest for her,” said Mouratoglou, with a knowing smile.