Serena Williams was wrapping up her pre-French Open news conference when someone seated in the front row wanted to know whether she would take one question in the local language.
The tournament’s defending champion gave the OK. The reporter proceeded to put forth a pair of queries, and Williams arched her eyebrows and kiddingly chastised him — in French, of course — for asking two. She went on to answer both, earning a thumb’s up from the media member.
A year ago, Williams won over the fickle Roland Garros crowd by doing on-court interviews in French en route to the title, and the American — who has an apartment in Paris and is coached by a Frenchman — is clearly prepared to do more of the same this time around. What’s just as impressive is her comfort level playing on the Grand Slam tournament’s slow, red clay these days.
Heading into her first-round match Sunday against 138th-ranked Alize Lim, a wild-card entry from France who is making her Grand Slam singles debut, the No. 1-ranked Williams is 53-2 (a .964 winning percentage) with eight titles since 2012 on the surface known around here as “terre battue.” Before that, Williams was 86-29 (.748) with three titles on clay for her career.
Williams is not entirely sure how to explain that surge, saying she didn’t alter her game.
“I don’t know what clicked or didn’t click,” she said. “I have the capability of playing on clay, so I don’t know why I wasn’t more consistent on clay before.”
And then the 32-year-old Williams broke into a wide smile before adding: “But, hey, I guess better late than never, right?”
Absolutely. Indeed, one way to view her improvement on clay is simply in the context of a career renaissance that began, not coincidentally, right after a surprising exit against 111th-ranked Virginie Razzano of France at the 2012 French Open, the only first-round loss for Williams in 54 Grand Slam tournaments.
It was after that setback that Williams began working with Patrick Mouratoglou, who runs a tennis academy in France. She has since earned four singles trophies at the last seven majors, raising her Grand Slam total to 17, one short of Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert.
“When Serena is at her best, she’s going to win everything,” Evert said. “It’s just a matter of: Is she going to be at her best?”
Consider that the other 127 women in the field when play begins Sunday own a combined 19 Grand Slam titles. That includes seven for Williams’ older sister Venus.
The siblings could meet in the third round, which would be their earliest match at a major since their first — in the second round of the 1998 Australian Open. They have played eight all-Williams Grand Slam finals (Serena won six), but have not met at any stage of a major tournament since the 2009 Wimbledon final.
“It never gets easier,” Serena said. “She’s essentially the love of my life, so it’s definitely difficult.”
On Sunday, the 29th-seeded Venus will face 81st-ranked Belinda Bencic of Switzerland, who’s appearing in only her second major tournament. Other top players in action on Day 1 include 17-time major champion Roger Federer against Lukas Lacko, No. 6 Tomas Berdych against Peter Polansky, and No. 3 Agnieszka Radwanska against Zhang Shuai.
Radwanska, who lost to Serena in the Wimbledon final two years ago, is among the women who harbor realistic hope of making a deep run over the next 15 days. That group also includes 2011 French Open champion and reigning Australian Open champion Li Na; 2008 French Open winner Ana Ivanovic; and Maria Sharapova, who won the 2012 title in Paris to complete a career Grand Slam, then lost to Serena in last year’s final.
One possible matchup that will be on everyone’s radar: Sharapova could face Serena in the quarterfinals. Asked about that after Friday’s draw, Sharapova danced around the question.
Serena is coming off a title on clay at the Italian Open, which could be a harbinger. The only other two times she was the champion in Rome were the only years she went on to become the champion in Paris, in 2002 and 2013. Now she will try to do something she’s never done at the French Open but has at each of the other three majors: win two consecutive titles.
“I don’t remember the last time I was defending champ,” she said, “so it feels really good.”