Welcome back to Paris, Serena Williams. The tennis world can’t wait to find out exactly how that bothersome left knee is holding up.
Williams practiced at the French Open’s redesigned main stadium on Monday — alas, Court Philippe Chatrier’s retractable roof won’t be ready until next year — and will want to get some more work in over the coming days, given how little she’s played on clay courts lately.
As in: a total of just one match on the surface since last year’s tournament at Roland Garros. Forever, it seems, Williams has been the woman to beat on the Grand Slam stage, provided she is in the field and is healthy. No one really knows this time just how ready she is.
“We just don’t know her physical status at this point,” 18-time major champion Chris Evert said in a telephone interview. “She relies so much on the physicality of her game and her movement and her sprinting and just her court coverage and setting up those big shots. Her legs are vital to her game. I don’t know if we’ve seen her 100 percent since the beginning of the year.”
With the French Open set to start Sunday, the 10th-ranked Williams has played only nine matches in 2019.
Five were at the Australian Open in January, when she lost to Karolina Pliskova in the quarterfinals after blowing a 5-1, 40-30 lead in the third set and four match points in all.
She retired from a match at Indian Wells, citing an illness, then withdrew from tournaments in Miami and Rome, citing her knee.
“I haven’t played a ton of matches this year. Not my choice; just by force,” Williams said after her lone clay appearance, an opening victory at the Italian Open before she pulled out ahead of what would have been a match against her older sister, Venus. “I really, really actually desperately wanted to be on the tour and to be playing, but it hasn’t been able to work out.”
The red clay used in Paris never has been the most natural surface for success for Williams, in part because it slows down her massive serves and groundstrokes that earn so many quick points on grass or hard courts.
“Remember, she hits the ball very early and very flat. So if she doesn’t have control of her body, many errors will come,” International Tennis Hall of Fame coach Nick Bollettieri said, “because she’s not going to push a ball.”
Still, it’s a testament to her greatness that Williams did manage to win three titles in France, part of her haul of 23 Grand Slam singles trophies. That’s a record in the professional era, which began in 1968, and one shy of Margaret Court’s all-time mark.
“She takes great pride in Grand Slams and her lead-in has not been up to her high standards,” Evert said. “It’s all about the knee, which has been nagging her. It is a concern, especially now on the clay, where you’ve got to move more to win a point. You use your legs, your knees, more than on any other surface.”
Here’s the thing: Williams is not just any player, of course.
After 16 months away from Grand Slam competition because of her pregnancy and the birth of her daughter in September 2017, Williams showed up in Paris a year ago and looked to be approaching the height of her powers right away. She knocked off a pair of seeded women to set up a showdown against Maria Sharapova in the fourth round, but then pulled out because of a chest muscle injury.
Williams would go on to reach the finals at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open before coming up just short of her 24th major trophy each time.
That showed what she’s still capable of doing, even without much prep work.
“Serena’s always — always — someone that you’re thinking about in the draw. Whenever she’s there, she can win any tournament that she plays,” said 14th-ranked Madison Keys, the 2017 U.S. Open runner-up and a semifinalist in Paris in 2018. “She played a handful of tournaments last year and made the finals of, what, at least two Grand Slams? So Serena’s Serena, and there’s a reason that she has so many titles to her name.”
So can Williams go to the French Open and contend, despite the lack of action? Keys’ response: “100 percent.”
AP Sports Writer Andrew Dampf in Rome contributed.
Howard Fendrich covers tennis for The Associated Press.