PARIS — Serena Williams has tried to master French, as she has finally mastered the French Open again. So after she had served five aces in her last seven service points to beat Maria Sharapova, 6-4, 6-4, in Saturday’s final, and had gone down on her knees and put her head to the clay in celebration, Williams kept up her recent habit of making her postmatch remarks to the crowd in the local language.
“I’m incredible,” she said in French.
That is probably not what she meant to say. But for accuracy, if not for her command of a second language, it is hard to argue with the sentiment. It is also increasingly hard to make the case that Williams is not well on her way to being the greatest women’s player in tennis history. With the victory over Sharapova, Williams seized one of the few achievements that had eluded her — a second French Open, to match the one she won in 2002, a tennis lifetime ago. At 31, she has won 16 Grand Slam singles events, and appears nowhere near finished, given that she is 74-3 since crashing out of here last year in the first round.
“I definitely — I want to go out in my peak,” Williams said in response to a question about whether she had contemplated retiring now. “That’s my goal. But have I peaked yet?”
After she dropped one set in the two weeks at Roland Garros, that is a terrifying question for the rest of the women’s tour to ponder. Williams is one of only four women to win each of the Grand Slam tournaments at least twice — Chris Evert, Steffi Graf, and Martina Navratilova are the others — and the most daunting aspect of the accomplishment is this: If nobody could stop Williams on clay, easily her worst surface, who will do it when she gets to Wimbledon’s grass or the hardcourt at the US Open? And what might have been if she had not had ankle and back injuries at the Australian Open, where she lost in a quarterfinal?
This was the first time the top two seeds had met in the Roland Garros final since 1995. Sharapova, the defending champion, played well, putting up a much better fight than most had predicted, given that Williams holds a 14-2 career edge over her and has not lost to Sharapova since 2004. But Sharapova forced Williams to play excellent defense, and in the first set, she even broke Williams’s serve, the most devastating threat in the game. Sharapova led the set, 2-0, before Williams won four games in a row. Then she and Williams were at 4-all.
No one’s best is good enough right now if Williams is having a good day. And Williams was having a good day, particularly because she was able to wield her serve — she had three aces in the final game, including her fastest of the day, at 123 miles per hour, on match point — and, after a shaky start, to control her forehand. Williams said she went for so many aces in the final game because she was so nervous that she did not think she could hit ground strokes.
But Sharapova pointed to that ninth game of the match as a turning point, when Williams broke her serve to take the lead with a whipped crosscourt forehand. Sharapova said: “I’m nitpicking here, but these are moments against her that I feel that I should be able to take, because then she has no pressure going in and serving and being up a break, you know, at 5-4, and, you know, serving harder than David Ferrer when he gets to the final of Roland Garros.”
Williams, who was booed by fans here in 2003, has grown increasingly comfortable on clay and in this city since she began working with Patrick Mouratoglou, a Paris-based coach, after last year’s disaster — so much so that she said she thought she was a Parisian.
That her titles at Roland Garros came so far apart, or that the second came at an age when many players contemplate retirement, is a testament not only to her abundant talent but also to her remarkable will. Williams acknowledged on Saturday that her first-round loss last year to Virginie Razzano still rankled her, although it also convinced her that she had nothing to lose, so she could relax.
She spent the last two weeks on a mission, dropping the lone set in the quarterfinals to Svetlana Kuznetsova — the only match in which Williams even whiffed the potential for defeat. After she dusted off Sara Errani in the semifinals as if she were a hitting partner in a warm-up, Williams was so focused, so impatient to get on to the next match, that she announced that reporters’ questions were becoming redundant and that she wanted to move on. While Williams said she was more relaxed during this French Open, she was, for the final, more tightly wound than she had been before, and it showed. She had 21 unforced errors.
“I think my winning appetite was really high,” Williams said. “I think due to that, I may have not played as well as I played in other matches in this final as I did before. So I think I put maybe a little pressure on myself; because of that, I maybe made a lot of mistakes that I didn’t make in other rounds. But also, with that being said, it really got me through a lot of tough points that I knew I needed to win.”
Williams said she did not realize the victory was her 16th Grand Slam title until the former player Fabrice Santoro told her on court during the postmatch interview. She wants more, and she will now go into Wimbledon as the heavy favorite to win her sixth championship there. That is also where Sharapova first upset Williams, in 2004, when Sharapova was a teenager having a breakthrough — and as it turns out, long before Williams played the finest tennis of her career.
“I’m really relaxed,” Williams said. “I really enjoy every moment that I’m out there. I always said that I felt like I have never played my best tennis. I have said that for years, that I feel like I can always do better and play better, and I have always wanted to reach that level. I don’t know. Maybe I’m just trying to get there.”