French Open: Ill Serena’s 20th Grand Slam bid hangs by a thread

World number one battling severe flu ahead of decider against Safarova.

Afp June 05, 2015
Safarova’s challenges include the fact that only two players outside the top 10 have won the French Open. PHOTO: AFP

PARIS: Serena Williams plays Lucie Safarova in the French Open final on Saturday and the odds, on paper and also by the statistics, are hugely in the American’s favour.

Only the top seed’s fragile state of health, it seems, stands in the way of what would be a 20th Grand Slam title — just two shy of the Open-era record of 22 set by Steffi Graf.

At 33, Serena is the consummate finisher in the top tournaments.

In 23 Grand Slam finals, she has lost just four times — twice to sister Venus and once each to Maria Sharapova and Samantha Stosur.

In contrast, Safarova, at 28, five years younger than her opponent, will be playing in her first Grand Slam final after 12 years as a pro, mostly spent in the shadows.

Her head-to-head record against Serena is a dismal 0-8 and prior to this year, she had never made it past the last-16 at Roland Garros in 10 previous unremarkable Paris campaigns.

However, Serena has struggled from the start of the tournament and things got worse when she came down with the flu after her third-round win over Victoria Azarenka.

She has lost the first set in four of her six matches to date and it’s been her fighting spirit and the best serve ever seen in the women’s game that has kept her afloat.

Serena’s 4-6, 6-3, 6-0 win over Swiss surprise Timea Bacsinszky in the semi-finals was at times painful to watch as she coughed and spluttered and staggered about the court fighting her illness.

Struck by another bout of coughing, she was forced to abandon her courtside interview immediately after clinching the win over Bacsinszky after saying just a few words.

Later, she told US TV that she had never felt so ill. “I caught the flu after my third-round match and have been struggling ever since,” she said. “I never thought I could win and I didn’t want to go to a third set. But I thought that if I was going to lose, I had better go for winners. I was so tired and the next thing I knew I was in a third set. I don’t know what happened.”

On her prospects for Saturday’s final, she added, “I just hope I can get better from here.”

Safarova, a late blossomer whose nice-girl reputation belies a steely determination, said that she has nothing to lose against Serena in what will be the biggest match of her career.

If she triumphs, she will be the first Czech player to win since Hana Mandlikova in 1981 — achieved before Czechoslovakia split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

Her hopes of doing that could well depend on if medication can get Serena, who cancelled her pre-French Open final practice session as well as her media conference on Friday, back to health in time.

Published in The Express Tribune, June 6th, 2015.

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