Serena’s preparations for Paris are far from tranquil.

Patrick Mouratoglou, Serena Williams’ long-time coach, tweeted 10 days ago, “Change of plans.” “Serena hasn’t competed in a while, and we want to get as many matches under our belt as possible before Roland-Garros – so we’ve added the Emilia-Romagna Open to our schedule.”

The strategy only lasted two matches.

After crashing out in her first match since February on the WTA Italian Open earlier this month, the 23-time Grand Slam champion accepted a wild-card invitation to the low-key WTA 250 clay-court match in Parma, which was added to the calendar this year due to the pandemic.

It was Williams’ first victory since defeating Simona Halep in the Australian Open quarter-finals, and it will be the only “W” on clay heading into next week’s French Open, where the 39-year-pursuit old’s of the record-equaling Grand Slam number 24 appears more improbable than ever.

Williams was defeated 7-6(4), 6-2 in the second round of the Parma Open by Czech Katerina Siniakova, a former doubles world No. 1 who is now ranked 68th in singles. Williams had a set point at 5-4 in the first set, but a forehand winner whizzed by as she stood motionless in the middle of the court. Siniakova won the tie-break relatively easily.

Williams returned with a bang, breaking her opponent in the first game of the second set earlier than a precipitous drop in stage drowned her out; Siniakova won 16 of the final 18 points.

The sample resembled Williams’ defeat in Rome, which was her 1,000th Tour-level match. After a first-round bye, the American lost 7-6(6), 7-5 to Argentina’s Nadia Podoroska, the world No. 42 who reached the Roland Garros semi-finals last year.

Williams’ otherwise potent first strike, the booming serves that usually earn her low-cost factors in crucial moments, was the biggest letdown in each of her shock losses. Williams’ first serve share was less than 50 percent against Podoroska, whereas she only won 59 percent of the points on her second serve against Siniakova with seven double faults remaining.

Since returning from maternity leave in 2017, Williams has had to endure heartbreak after heartbreak in her four-year quest for the Slam title that would put her on par with Margaret Court’s all-time record. She has agonizingly failed to cross the final hurdle four occasions, stumbling twice in the semi-final stage and once in the last-eight, but she has by no means appeared to date off from having a shot at it as she does heading into this French Open.

“If I respond now, I’m not going to value her chances (at the French Open) very excessive because she misplaced the second spherical in the previous match, and first round in the one earlier than,” Mouratoglou was quoted as saying by Reuters on Friday. “So it’s difficult to predict that she’ll win Roland Garros. However, we still have 10 days to work, so we (have) to make the most of these 10 days, and I know how much work she will do in a short period of time and how much she will improve.”

In any case, Williams has not had much success in her pursuit in Paris. In her three French Open appearances since 2017, she has been forced to withdraw mid-tournament due to injuries—in 2018, before her fourth-round match against Maria Sharapova, and last year after winning the first round. In 2019, she was thrashed in straight units by Sofia Kenin in the third round.

Williams also gave a walkover after the first round of her sole clay-court match that yr in Rome, whereas she didn’t play a single clay-court match earlier than the 2018 Roland Garros.

Compare that to at the very least a number of warm-up tournaments that she usually competes in on difficult courts earlier than the season’s opening and closing Grand Slams in Melbourne and New York, and it could explain why Paris and Williams haven’t had a great romance lately.

Williams is a three-time French Open champion, but it took her more than a decade after her first title in 2002 to win the Suzanne-Lenglen Cup again in 2013. Her previous title came in 2015, when she defeated thirteenth seed Lucie Safarova in the final after not facing a single top-10 seed throughout the match. It was her least productive Slam, with only four finals in Paris — half of her second-fewest Grand Slam finals, at the Australian Open — out of 33 totals.

Williams’ trademark energy game, accompanied by a menacing serve that leaves her opponents time-starved on the opposite end on grass and hard courts, will be significantly blunted on the slow, bouncy clay courts. At the age of 39, this is even truer. “I’d say Roland Garros is the most difficult because it requires her to be at her best on the physical aspect and it does not highlight her qualities in the same way,” Mouratoglou stated. “However, I believe she has a chance (to win a Grand Slam) on different

Zainab Murtaza

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