The Bois de Boulogne is nine time zones and a world away from Compton, Calif., the hardscrabble Los Angeles suburb where Serena Williams learned to pummel a ball with a power that would transform women’s tennis.
But here in the second-biggest park in Paris, where Roland Garros hosts the French Open each May, the 32-year-old Williams has developed a fluency not only in the French language but also on the red clay playing surface that is unimpressed by power and rewards patience instead.
Williams opens defense of her 2013 title Sunday against French wild-card Alize Lim, who tweeted “Aaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhh!!!!!!....” — a universal term for “I have no prayer!” — upon learning of the daunting matchup. No doubt the rest of Williams’s opponents will feel the same, including last year’s finalist and 2012 French Open champion Maria Sharapova, drawn to face the world No. 1 in the quarterfinals, given the Russian’s 2-16 record against her.
A triumph in the season’s second major would deliver Williams’s third French Open championship and 18th Grand Slam title, tying her with Hall of Famers Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova for fourth place on the all-time list.
As the 2014 French Open gets underway (the lone major to start play on a Sunday), Williams is the woman to beat, provided a recent thigh ailment has subsided and her competitive fire still rages. Her march to this month’s Italian Open championship, dropping just one set en route, suggests both body and heart are in formidable shape.
No player wins the French Open on power alone or one single weapon. It takes patience, smarts and what Patrick McEnroe calls “shot tolerance” — essentially, knowing what shot to hit at the right time.
“Clay just forces you to make better decisions more often,” said McEnroe, an ESPN analyst and former Davis Cup captain who shared the 1989 French Open doubles title with Jim Grabb. “Quite honestly, you need to hit more balls into the court to win points.”
Typically that knack isn’t developed until later in a pro career, although Rafael Nadal, who was weaned on red clay, stands as an exception, having won the first of his record eight French Open titles on his first attempt, just days after turning 19.
In Evert’s view, Williams is playing the best clay-court tennis of her career under the tutelage of Patrick Mouratoglou, the Frenchman who has served as her coach since her first-round loss in the 2012 French Open.
“She has learned to play on the clay a lot better from Patrick. She has improved her defense skills; she has always had the offense skills,” said Evert, who won the first of her women’s-record seven French Opens at 19.
“She’s more fit. She’s moving better. She is patient with herself. She doesn’t have to go for the winner on the fourth shot. She can wait eight or nine shots and go for the opening. She’s more intelligent and thinking more clearly on the clay than she ever has.”
If Williams’s path to the women’s final appears assured, the 27-year-old Nadal, hailed as the King of Clay, has shown rare vulnerability on the surface in recent weeks.
In nine years of contesting the French Open, he has compiled a 59-1 record. But he arrives at Roland Garros having lost three clay-court matches this season, falling to fellow Spaniard David Ferrer, who had been 0-17 against him, in Monte Carlo’s quarterfinal. He then fell to a less accomplished compatriot, Nicolas Almagro, at the same stage in Barcelona. Nadal won the next tournament, in Madrid, when Japan’s Kei Nishikori retired while trailing in the third set of their final.
And in last week’s Italian Open final against Novak Djokovic, he claimed the first set yet couldn’t close.
The two played arguably their greatest match in last year’s French Open semifinals, each blasting one brilliant stroke after another. Nadal prevailed 9-7 in the fifth set, leaving Djokovic still seeking the one title he needs to complete a career Grand Slam.
As the tournament’s No. 1 and 2 seeds this year, Nadal and Djokovic can only meet in the June 8 final. The victor will not only add to his résumé of Grand Slam titles but also depart with the world No. 1 ranking.
French Open note: Francis Tiafoe, 16, of Riverdale, Md., will be the top-seeded boy when the Junior French Open gets underway June 1.
Tiafoe, who lived for a time and has trained since age 5 at the Junior Tennis Champions Center in College Park, drew international notice in December for becoming the youngest in history to win the Orange Bowl, the prestigious clay-court junior tournament previously won by Roger Federer, Ivan Lendl, Bjorn Borg and Andy Roddick, among others. Tiafoe won it at 15.
Asked about his prospects, McEnroe, the U.S. Tennis Association’s general manager of player development, cited Tiafoe’s athleticism, 6-foot-1 size and rare tennis IQ as elements of what he called a “huge upside.”
“He understands the game; he understands how to play,” McEnroe said of Tiafoe. “He has obviously got incredible joy for tennis, which is amazing, which is so great to see. He loves to play. He loves to be out on the court. He’s got a huge smile on his face when he’s walking around.”