With her 38th birthday fast approaching, the clock is ticking for Serena Williams and on her pursuit of a record-equalling 24th Grand Slam title at Roland Garros.
The American star won her most recent major at the Australian Open in 2017 while pregnant.
However, the all-time record of 24 majors set by Australia’s Margaret Court between 1960 and 1973 has proved frustratingly out of reach.
Williams returned to Grand Slam tennis, after giving birth to her daughter, at Roland Garros in 2018, making the last 16 where she had been set to resume her bitter rivalry with Maria Sharapova.
An arm injury torpedoed that meeting and stalled her assault on a fourth title in Paris after 2002, 2013 and 2015.
She still made headlines in Paris by wearing an all-black bodysuit which has now been banned by Roland Garros officials.
Defeat in the 2018 Wimbledon final and US Open championship match, where her now-infamous meltdown overshadowed Naomi Osaka’s title triumph, followed her Paris heartbreak.
Her Australian Open campaign in January ended in a quarter-final loss to Karolina Pliskova despite having led 5-1 in the final set and holding four match points.
“It’s definitely not easy for me. From day one, I expect to go out and, quite frankly, to win. That hasn’t happened,” said Williams in the aftermath of her Melbourne defeat.
“But I do like my attitude. I like that I don’t want to go out here and say, ‘I expect to lose because I had a year off, I’ve been playing for 10 months. I’m not supposed to win.’
“I don’t have that attitude. I have the attitude of, ‘I’ve only been playing 10 months, but I expect to win, and if I don’t, it’s disappointing.'”
Since Melbourne, Williams has been unable to finish the three tournaments she has entered — she retired to Garbine Muguruza in the third round of Indian Wells, withdrew after winning a round in Miami, and withdrew after winning a round in Rome last week due to a right knee injury.
– ‘Least favourable surface’ –
In total, her 2019 activity reads just nine matches played — only one on clay, a straightforward win over Swedish qualifier Rebecca Peterson in Rome.
However, nobody is yet writing off a player who also battled life-threatening blood clots as she gave birth.
“Serena Williams will beat Margaret Court’s record,” said former Wimbledon champion Conchita Martinez, now the coach of world number two Pliskova.
Williams opens her Paris campaign against Russia’s Vitalia Diatchenko and could then face Indian Wells champion Bianca Andreescu, the promising Canadian who hasn’t played since Miami due to a shoulder injury.
Australia’s Ashleigh Barty is a possible last-16 opponent and should she keep winning, Williams could meet world number one Osaka in the quarter-finals.
With a question mark over her physical condition, her longtime coach is keen to keep a lid on expectations of her chances on the clay of Roland Garros.
“For her game, it’s perhaps the least favourable surface,” Patrick Mouratoglou told l’Equipe newspaper.
Williams, for her part, wants to keep playing even if she still harbours doubts over her match fitness.
“When you’re sedentary, it becomes hard to manage your body. So it’s just basically you have to eat grass. That’s kind of what I did. It was a nightmare,” she explained after her lone win in Rome on her recovery.
“But it worked and it paid off. I didn’t get to train too much. It’s more of a process. I feel like I’m taking it one day at a time. I’ve been really putting in the hours in terms of keeping my cardio as much as I could with a knee injury, which is really impressive how I’ve been able to do it.”