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Serena Williams rallies for French Open win, nears possible showdown

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PARIS (AP) — After playing so infrequently, it’s as if Serena Williams is starting from scratch.

Sure looked that way for a bit more than a half-hour in the French Open’s second round on Thursday, when she dealt with muscle soreness, a lack of verve and a bunch of mistakes. So many mistakes.

And then, suddenly, after unleashing one particularly powerful backhand return winner that she punctuated with a shout, Williams was back. She was animated. Determined. Dominant, even. Shaking off some rust in her first Grand Slam tournament since giving birth nine months ago, Williams recalibrated her shots and erased a deficit of a set and a break to beat 17th-seeded Ashleigh Barty of Australia 3-6, 6-3, 6-4 in a match that ended shortly before dusk.

“I lost the first set, and I thought, ‘I’ve got to try harder. I’ve got to just try harder,’ she told the crowd afterward. “And Serena came out.”

Well put.

Williams had all sorts of trouble in the opening set, compiling 12 unforced errors. By the time the second set was merely one game old, she had been broken twice in the match, each time at love, a rather surprising development for the owner of one of her sport’s most dangerous serves.

Her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, attributed much of the poor start to this outing coming about 48 hours after the first match of her comeback following a two-month break. She arrived in Paris having played only four matches all season — none on the red clay used at Roland Garros, and none at a major tournament since she won her 23rd such title at the Australian Open in January 2017, while pregnant.

FRENCH OPEN: TV/Stream Schedule | Scores | Men’s Draw (PDF) | Women’s Draw

“She had no energy. She was struggling to move,” Mouratoglou said, adding that he had hoped for rain to postpone the match against Barty until Thursday. “She was struggling to use her legs on the serve and she was making much too many mistakes.”

And then?

“This ability to turn a match around and suddenly be like a superhero, basically — she’s normal and suddenly, Poom!” he said, snapping fingers on both hands. “Something happens, and she transforms into someone who’s almost unreachable at the level she gets to. This is something she’s always had. It’s really special, but that’s also why she is who she is.”

Williams started yelling and pumping her fist after pretty much every point that went her way. It woke up Williams’ game. Might have startled Barty, too. As big a hitter as Barty is in her own right, she is hardly in Williams’ class — who is? — and never has been past the third round at a major tournament.

The 36-year-old American, who became a mother on Sept. 1, grabbed four consecutive games over a span of less than 15 minutes to lead 4-1 in the second set, which soon enough would be hers. She gained control of the third almost immediately, breaking to go ahead 2-1, then holding for 3-1.

After only three winners in the first set, she had 25 the rest of the way.

“When push came to shove, the real Serena came out. And that’s one of her best assets: When her back is against the wall, the best comes out,” Barty said. “And that happened early in the second, and early in the third again.”

When Williams served out the victory with a backhand winner down the line, she raised both arms. In the stands, Mouratoglou, shook his fist.

“I felt like it’s been a long way and a long journey, and I’m still getting there, you know. But I have been working really hard, for a really long time,” said Williams, who is ranked 451st, 450 spots below her career high. “I just am hoping that every day I’m out there, every match I’m out there … it will come together.”

Next for Williams is a third-round match against 11th-seeded Julia Goerges of Germany.

Get through that, and Williams would face either five-time major champion Maria Sharapova or 2016 U.S. Open runner-up Karolina Pliskova. Williams beat Pliskova’s twin sister, Kristyna, in the first round in Paris.

There were, to be sure, plenty of other big names in action Wednesday, including victories for Sharapova, No. 1-ranked Simona Halep and 10-time men’s champion Rafael Nadal.

But the 2018 French Open is, first and foremost, about Williams and her return to a Grand Slam stage.

“She’s not quite at the level she was when she was at her best, but that’s normal. That’s expected,” Barty said. “But her level when she’s not quite on her best is still bloody good.”

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Mark Spitz takes on Katie Ledecky’s challenge

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Swimmers around the world took on Katie Ledecky‘s milk-glass challenge since it became a social media sensation, including one of the few Americans with more Olympic gold medals.

Mark Spitz, who won seven golds at the 1972 Munich Games, took 10 strokes in an at-home pool while perfectly balancing a glass of what appeared to be water on his head.

“Would’ve been faster with the ‘stache, @markspitzusa, but I still give this 7 out of 7 gold medals,” Ledecky tweeted.

Spitz joined fellow Olympic champions Susie O’Neill of Australia and American Matt Grevers in posting similar videos to what Ledecky first shared Monday.

In Tokyo next year, Ledecky can pass Spitz’s career gold-medal count of nine if she wins all of her expected events — 200m, 400m, 800m and 1500m freestyles and the 4x200m free relay.

Then she would trail one athlete from any country in any sport — Michael Phelps, the 23-time gold medalist who has yet to post video of swimming while balancing a glass on his head.

MORE: Spitz puts Michael Phelps’ career in perspective

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Serena Williams, reclusive amid pandemic, returns to tennis eyeing Grand Slam record

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Serena Williams travels with “like 50 masks” and has been a little bit of a recluse since early March and the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.

“I don’t have full lung capacity, so I’m not sure what would happen to me,” Williams said Saturday, two days before the start of the WTA’s Top Seed Open in Lexington, Ky., her first tournament since playing Fed Cup in early February. “I’m sure I’ll be OK, but I don’t want to find out.”

Williams, 38, has a history of blood clots and pulmonary embolisms. She faced life-threatening complications following her Sept. 1, 2017, childbirth that confined her to a bed for six weeks. She said her daily routine was surgery and that she lost count after the first four.

More recently, Williams enjoyed “every part” of the last six months at home in Florida, her longest time grounded since her teens.

“I’ve been a little neurotic, to an extent,” on health and safety, she said. “Everyone in the Serena bubble is really protected.”

Williams is entered to play next week in Lexington and at consecutive tournaments in New York City later this month — the Western & Southern Open and U.S. Open, the latter starting Aug. 31.

Williams is the highest-ranked player in the Lexington field at No. 9. Others include 2017 U.S. Open champion Sloane Stephens, older sister Venus Williams and 16-year-old Coco Gauff.

She has been bidding ever since having daughter Olympia to tie Margaret Court‘s record 24 Grand Slam singles titles, albeit many of Court’s crowns came before the Open Era and, notably at the Australian Open, against small fields lacking the world’s best players. Williams reached the last two Wimbledon and U.S. Open finals, losing all of them.

She showed her seriousness in committing early to this year’s U.S. Open by installing a court at home with the same surface. Three of the top 10 female singles players already said they will skip the U.S. Open due to travel and/or virus concerns, including No. 1 Ash Barty.

“Tennis is naturally a socially distanced sport, so it was kind of easy to go back and just walk on my side of the court and have my hitter walk on his side of the court,” Williams said.

The French Open starts two weeks after the U.S. Open ends. Williams was asked if she will fly to Europe for tournaments this autumn.

“I see myself doing it all, if it happens,” she said.

The Tokyo Olympics are too far away to make plans.

“We’ll have to kind of wait to see what happens in the fall,” she said. “One thing I have learned with this pandemic is don’t plan.”

MORE: Past U.S. Open champions get wild cards

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