By Sandra Harwitt
Let’s pretend we’re playing Jeopardy, The category is Serena Williams. The answer is for $1000 and it turns out to be a double jeopardy answer: This phenomenon has only happened to Williams twice in her career, at the 1999 U.S. Open and the 2015 French Open.
The question is: What is playing three consecutive three-set matches at a tournament.
That’s right. In a career that started way back in 1998, Williams has rarely been forced to play multiple three-set encounters.
And in case you’re wondering, Williams would’ve had the right response for Alex Trebek if she was the Jeopardy contestant. She remembered the only other time it happened in her career was at the U.S. Open.
“Those are the days, the glory days,” she said, smiling.
If there’s any good news for Williams, who is having to claw her way through this French Open, it’s that she won the first of her 19 Grand Slam titles at that particular U.S. Open. She captured the trophy with a two-set victory against Martina Hingis.
Williams is now into her ninth quarterfinal or better appearance at the French Open – she won the title in 2002 and 2012.
If one was to be honest, Williams looked to be sleep walking until the sixth game of the second set against fellow American Sloane Stephens, before managing to pulll out a 1-6, 7-5, 6-3 win. It improved the 33-year-old Williams’s record against Stephens to 5-1 with three of their matches going the three-set distance.
For clarification purposes, Williams struggled against little-known Anna-Lena Friedsam of German in the second round before coming up with a 5-7, 6-3, 6-3 win. And then against the 27th-ranked Victoria Azarenka in the third round was stretched to a 3-6, 6-4, 6-2 victory.
“You know, it’s not how you start; I guess it’s how you finish,” Williams said. That’s
kind of how I’m looking at it. Obviously I’m disappointed. Usually I’m winning in straight sets, and I’m (all) business on and off the court. Now I’m just winning, and that’s a good thing, too. There’s always room for improvement.”
In a concession to the harder workload on the court the last few matches, Williams is ready to make some adjustments to her usual schedule. And she’s trying to see the good in the unique situation she’s currently facing.
“I’m definitely gaining confidence,” Williams confirmed. “I have been practicing a lot. So I probably won’t practice as much as I have been because my matches have been so long. But I think that kind of helps me out, too, because that match play really works.”
All of that positive reinforcement couldn’t keep Williams from acknowledging the obvious – she’s walking on the dangerous side of the street at this French Open.
“I feel like I”m living on the edge,” Williams said. “But, you know, I’ve got to get off the edge. I don’t like to take chances, but at the same time this is also helping me, I guess, in terms of knowing that, ‘Oh, I know I can play a two-hour match, I can do that.”
She added to that thought a note that pointed to the obvious – she isn’t getting any younger. In fact, she is the oldest player to reach the round-of-16 at this French Open. But in her mind she still has life in the game, at least for the immediate future. And you can’t blame her for thinking that way when she is now into her 243rd overall week as the world No. 1.
“I’m not worried about running out of gas,” she said. “You know, I’m 33, I’m not going to play another 10 years, so I better not run out of gas now. I’m not going to quit. You know, it’s why stop now? I’m going to keep going as hard as I can until I’m out. And if that means I have to go another nine sets, then so be it. But nothing’s going to make me run out of gas in terms of that.”
Ahead of Williams is 17th seed Sara Errani of Italy as a quarterfinal opponent. America’s best, not to mention the world’s best, holds a winning 8-0 career record against Errani. She’s only lost two sets to the Italian in the past, most recently at the Fed Cup World Group Playoff tie in Italy, in April.
No matter what Williams says, you have to believe she’s hoping not to have a repeat three-setter again with Errani when they meet on Wednesday. But if she does go the distance she can look to her three set record for the year – it’s now 10-0 — and feel confident she’ll find a way to win.