PARIS — For more than a decade, whatever the state of her health or her game, no matter the opponent or arena, Serena Williams always won first-round matches at Grand Slam tournaments.
Until Tuesday at the French Open. Until Williams came within two points of victory nine times, yet remarkably failed to close the deal against unheralded and 111th-ranked Virginie Razzano of France.
Until a theatrical, 23-minute final game filled with 30 points, more than enough to fill an entire set, featuring ebbs and flows, high-pressure shotmaking and nerves — and even thunderous protests from the crowd when the chair umpire docked Razzano a point.
That look-away-and-you-miss-something game included five wasted break points for Williams, and seven match points that she saved, until Razzano finally converted her eighth, 3 hours and 3 minutes after they began playing.
All told, until Tuesday, Williams was 46 for 46 in openers at tennis’ top venues, and those encounters tended to be routine and drama-free, befitting a woman so good that the goal — and 13 times, the end result — was a major championship.
Not this time. Now Williams’ first-round Grand Slam record is 46-1 after as stunning a denouement as could be in a 4-6, 7-6 (5), 6-3 loss to Razzano on the red clay at Roland Garros.
The fifth-seeded Williams, considered by many a pre-tournament favourite, led 5-1 in the second-set tiebreaker, before dropping the next 13 points in a row.
“I’ve been through so much in my life, and … I’m not happy, by no means,” said Williams, her eyes welling with tears. “I just always think things can be worse.”
The 30-year-old American returned to action last year after missing about 10 months because of a series of health scares, including two foot operations and blood clots, a scary stretch she says altered her worldview.
The rowdy spectators in Court Philippe Chatrier chanting Razzano’s first name would have been pulling for her anyway, of course, because of her citizenship. But their support was particularly strong because of her recent heartbreak, well-known in France: Razzano’s fiance — Stephane Vidal, also her longtime coach — died at age 32 of a brain tumour in May 2011, a little more than a week before her first-round match at last year’s French Open.
He had encouraged her to go ahead and enter the tournament, so she did, honouring his memory by stepping on court to play, a black ribbon pinned to her shirt.
When she walked out of the locker room for what turned out to be a straight-set loss, she wore a gold chain that Vidal had given her as a Valentine’s Day gift a few years earlier.
“Honestly, the past is the past,” Razzano said Tuesday. “I think now I did my mourning. I feel good today. It took time.”
Said Williams: “I know of her story and her husband. We all have stories. I mean, I almost died, and Venus is struggling herself. So, you know, it’s life. You know, it just depends on how you deal with it. She obviously is dealing with it really well.”
Williams entered Tuesday having won her previous 17 matches, all on clay. She withdrew before what would have been her most recent match, a semifinal at the Italian Open on May 19, citing a bad lower back, but said on Friday she was better, then refused to place blame on that injury after being beaten by Razzano.
“No, no, no. I didn’t feel anything abnormal,” said Williams, who counts the 2002 French Open among her 13 Grand Slam singles trophies. “I was 100 per cent healthy.”
Occasionally after losing points, Williams would bend forward and lean on her racket frame, as though perhaps stretching her lower back. She also clutched at that spot and whacked her racket there after miscues.
And there were plenty of those, 47 in all, 11 more than her foe. That’s where Williams put the emphasis when trying to fathom how she let her big lead slip away, especially after being ahead 5-1 in the second-set tiebreaker. She lost the next six points to end that set, then the first seven points of the third.
“I tried. I kept going for my shots, which always works for me,” Williams said. “It didn’t work out today.”