2008: One of two French Open titles Serena Williams should have won

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Serena Williams wins another US Open crown. AFP PHOTO/ Martin Bernetti

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With the year’s second major looming, one must think about Serena Williams’ chances of winning this year’s French Open.

Fresh off her third title in Charleston, where she came from a set down to defeat Jelena Jankovic in the final, Williams will now head to the European clay court season where she will be defending the title she won in Madrid last year.

She will also hope to defend major semi-final points in Rome, in the lead up to Roland Garros, where she was the champion in 2002.

However, Roland Garros has historically been Serena Williams’ worst major tournament, as it is the only one in which she has never saluted more than once (she has won each of the other three majors at least four times).

In my opinion, though, Williams should have at least two more French Open titles to her record. In this article, I will explain why she should have won the title in 2008.

Entering Roland Garros that year, she had a 23-2 record for the season, with her only defeats coming to Jelena Jankovic at the Australian Open and Dinara Safina in Berlin (Safina had temporarily paused the career of Justine Henin prior to defeating Williams, and eventually won the title there).

She had also taken out titles in Bangalore, Miami and Charleston, and reached the quarter-finals in Rome (withdrawing before a match against Alize Cornet due to injury).

In comparison, Ana Ivanovic, the eventual champion at Roland Garros that year, had it tough. After capturing the title at Indian Wells, she crashed out in the third round at Miami, losing to Lindsay Davenport, lost her Berlin crown when she lost in the semi-finals to Elena Dementieva and also crashed out early in Rome to qualifier Tsvetana Pironkova.

This may have been an indicator as to who would be the favourite to capture the title in Paris. The sudden retirement of Justine Henin meant that Serena Williams was the only active woman at the time to have won Roland Garros (in 2002).

This subsequently made her one of the sentimental favourites to claim the title in 2008.

She landed a very easy draw in Paris, even easier than that of Ivanovic’s. Let’s compare Serena’s potential draw to Ivanovic’s, and see how it would have unfolded.

In the early rounds, Williams landed Ashley Harkleroad in the first round, Mathilde Johansson in the second, Katarina Srebotnik in the third and Patty Schnyder in the fourth as potential opponents.

Harkleroad was very little-known on the Tour, Johansson had the expectations of the home crowd, Srebotnik had never beaten Williams (in fact, Williams had beaten her recently in Charleston, and also defeated her in the second round of the 2001 French Open) and Schnyder hadn’t reached the quarter-finals of the French Open since 1998.

By contrast, Ana Ivanovic received a tough opening.

She drew Sofia Arvidsson, Lucie Safarova, Caroline Wozniacki and Nicole Vaidisova as potential opponents in her draw.

Arvidsson was (and still is) a veteran on the WTA Tour, Safarova had reached the fourth round in 2007, knocking out Amelie Mauresmo en route, Wozniacki was to be seeded at a major for the first time and Vaidisova was still continuing to be consistent until her shock retirement in 2010.

Williams and Ivanovic would then have met in the quarter-finals, where Williams would have beaten her very easily (she had won their only encounter up to that point in straight sets at the 2006 US Open, as a wildcard entry and while ranked 100 places lower than Ivanovic at the time).

Williams would then have gone on to face Jelena Jankovic (or Venus Williams) in the semi-finals, then in the final one of Maria Sharapova, Dinara Safina or Svetlana Kuznetsova would have been no match for her.

She had beaten Sharapova twice at majors since losing to her in the final of Wimbledon in 2004 (including a 6-1, 6-2 thrashing in the final of the 2007 Australian Open), had also only lost once to Kuznetsova to that point, and she had also beaten Safina at the French Open in 2007.

How easy could it all have been. The draw was ready made for Serena Williams to win her second title in Paris.

Instead, she crashed out in the third round to Katarina Srebotnik – thus opening up Ana Ivanovic’s quarter of the draw and easing her potential path to the title.

And if that wasn’t enough, Venus Williams also lost on the same day – Jelena Jankovic would have been her potential quarter-final opponent had she gotten that far.

So, instead of the projected all-Williams semi-final that would have taken place, the top two Serbians (Jankovic and Ivanovic) went head-to-head for not just a place in the final, but also, the World No. 1 ranking which Maria Sharapova relinquished following her fourth round defeat to Dinara Safina.

Ivanovic won in three sets, and subsequently met Safina in the final. The Russian had taken out Sharapova, Elena Dementieva and Svetlana Kuznetsova en route, making her a potentially dangerous opponent.

Additionally, she had entered the tournament in hot form: she won the title in Berlin, defeating Justine Henin, Serena Williams, Victoria Azarenka and Dementieva along the way.

Safina was only getting started with her career after a slow start to the year (she eventually went on to capture the Silver Medal at the Beijing Olympics and finished the year in the Top Four).

Safina proved to be no match for Ana Ivanovic in the final, as the Serbian soon-to-be World No. 1 captured the title, in the process erasing the heartbreak of two previous failures in major finals. She had previously lost the French Open final to Justine Henin 12 months earlier, and went down to Maria Sharapova in Australia earlier in the year.

Ivanovic probably has Katarina Srebotnik to thank for removing the biggest obstacle from her draw – the only remaining champion, Serena Williams, in the third round. If it wasn’t for Srebotnik, then Ivanovic would not be the player that she is now.

But in the years ever since, her form took a nose-dive, and just two years later she sunk to No. 65 in the world. Her French Open title seemed like a world away as her confidence hit rock bottom and climbing back up the rankings appeared an impossibility.

However, a patch of 21 wins from her last 27 matches, during which she picked up two titles, would see her rocket back up the rankings and she has not dropped out of the seeding zone for any major tournament since.

It would not be until last year’s US Open that she would reach another major quarter-final (though that was partly due to a draw that opened up, as the other seeds in her section: Caroline Wozniacki, Francesca Schiavone and Monica Niculescu, all crashed out in the first round), where she bowed out to Serena Williams, who eventually captured the title.

That was a massive achievement for the Serbian, given she had endured a horror lead-up to the tournament, including being wiped out (in other words, beaten 6-0, 6-0) by Roberta Vinci in Montreal, suffering a foot injury which limited her movement in that match and not being rated a chance of progressing far at the US Open, where she had previously lost in the fourth round three times.

Ivanovic also has horrible memories from a heartbreaking first round loss to Kateryna Bondarenko in 2009 – it was that loss that triggered her 11-month form slump and subsequent fall down the rankings.

But today, she is back in the Top 20 and although she may be struggling at the moment, her best tennis is still yet to come. However, I still don’t take back that article I wrote in January after her loss to Agnieszka Radwanska at the Australian Open – because I measure players based on how far they go in tournaments, not just a few matches.

This year, she has mixed some of her best tennis with some of her worst tennis – at Monterrey, her most recent tournament, she scored a wipeout victory over Marta Sirotnika in the first round, only to lose to Timea Babos in three sets the very next round – this is how inconsistent she can be.

On the other hand, since that fateful French Open in 2008, Williams reclaimed the World No. 1 ranking, captured five more major titles and dominated at will before she accidentally stepped on some broken glass at a Berlin restaurant following her Wimbledon title in 2010, forcing her out of the game for 12 months.

Williams then suffered her own misfortune, dropping to No. 175 in the world by July 2011, before a miraculous comeback, which included reaching the final of the US Open and beating Victoria Azarenka and Caroline Wozniacki en route – saw her finish the year ranked World No. 12.

Her stunning comeback set the precedent for a year of domination last year, in which she captured titles at Wimbledon, the US Open and the year-end championships, and to cap it all off – the Olympic gold medal. However, she lost in the first round of the French Open – it was the first time she had ever lost in the first round of a major, and it was the third of just four losses that she suffered in 2012.

This year, she has captured titles in Brisbane, Miami, and Charleston, as well as reclaimed the World No. 1 ranking from Victoria Azarenka.

Given her hot start to this year, it’s phenomenal for someone who is aged 31 and it shows that Serena will not slow down anytime soon.

Hopefully her most recent title in Charleston won’t be a prelude to another Roland Garros disaster, after 2008 and 2012 (ironically, those other two years in which she won Charleston, were the same two years in which she would fail to get past the fourth round in Paris since winning her only title in 2002).

In my next article, I will explain why she should have also won the 2012 French Open, and later on I will preview Novak Djokovic’s chances of completing a Career Grand Slam in Paris this year, against the very likely possibility of Rafael Nadal saluting at his favourite tournament for an eighth time.

NOTE: Serena Williams missed the French Open in 2005, 2006 and 2011 due to injuries.

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