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TENNIS

Wedding belle Serena sounds French Open alarm for rivals

Fresh from attending the Royal wedding, Serena Williams will take aim at the upstarts who have been honeymooning at the majors in her absence when she makes her long-awaited Grand Slam return at Roland Garros.

Wedding belle Serena sounds French Open alarm for rivals
Serena Williams talks to George Clooney at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. Photo: Owen Humphreys/POOL/AFP.

The 36-year-old American, who first played the French Open in 1998, has been the champion in Paris three times. Should she win a fourth Roland Garros, it will take her level with Margaret Court's all-time Grand Slam record of 24 majors.

But there are question marks over her fitness and readiness for the 2018 tournament which starts on Sunday.

She has played just four matches on the WTA Tour all year, the last of which was a first round loss in Miami at the end of March.Her last appearance at a Slam was at the 2017 Australian Open which she won while pregnant.

Having then missed the rest of the season as she gave birth to daughter Alexis Olympia in September, Williams's world ranking has slumped to 454 from its dizzy heights of undisputed number one.

“I'm not just coming back to come back. I'm coming back to win,” she said defiantly in a HBO documentary 'Being Serena' which aired last week.

Her longtime coach Patrick Mouratoglou, who oversaw her first training session on Court Philippe Chatrier at Roland Garros on Sunday, has no doubts that Williams's competitive streak has not been blunted by the priorities of motherhood.

“Serena will play the French Open to win it,” he told the WTA Tour. “Can she do it? Serena can achieve anything – after being her coach for six years, I'm even more sure of that statement.”

In her absence — as well as the 15-month doping ban served by longtime rival and five-time major winner Maria Sharapova — there's been a stampede to get on the Grand Slam honours board before normal service is resumed.

Unheralded Latvian Jelena Ostapenko won last year's French Open, Sloane Stephens was an equally surprising champion at the US Open before Caroline Wozniacki finally converted potential into Slam success by taking Serena's Australian Open title in January this year.

Highs and lows

Needing to use a protected ranking to get into the main draw in Paris, no-one will want to face a fired-up Serena in the opening rounds in a tournament and city which has given her many highs as well as the occasional low.

It was in 2002 that she won her first Roland Garros — beating sister Venus in the final — and second major after an agonising wait to add to her collection that had stalled at just the one from the 1999 US Open.

She has since added the 2013 and 2015 titles in Paris, more than adequate compensation for the horror shows of 2012 when she was shocked in the first round by French journeywoman Virginie Razzano and a second round exit to Garbine Muguruza two years later.  

Serena Williams after winning the 2015 Roland Garros French Open. Photo: Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP.

Paris and its culture — and shopping — have also kept her enthralled. Serena owns a lavish apartment in the city's plush 7th arrondissement with a view of the Eiffel Tower.

She has also achieved a smattering of conversational French in which to make winning speeches to an appreciative crowd at Roland Garros.

“I've always had a wonderful relationship with Paris,” she admitted. “I feel like I can just live a normal life here.”

Serena's last appearance at the French Open ended in a final defeat at the hands of Muguruza in 2016. Mouratoglou believes her rivals will be foolish to think that Serena has little chance of making another championship match in a city she considers to be a second home.

“What I find the most encouraging is her enthusiasm, her motivation, and the quality of her work,” he said. “She obviously comes back to win and the wait has been long, so she will probably start Roland Garros with a mix of stress, because she will want to do well, and excitement because playing those events is the reason why she made such huge efforts to come back.”

READ MORE: Pouille sends France past Italy and into Davis Cup semi-finals

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TENNIS

Williams slams Sharapova book ahead of French Open clash

Serena Williams turned up the heat on Saturday ahead of her French Open clash with bitter rival Maria Sharapova, saying the claims about her in the Russian's book were "hearsay" and not "necessarily true".

Williams slams Sharapova book ahead of French Open clash
Serena Williams of the US holds a ball as she prepares to serve to Germany's Julia Goerges on day seven of the French Open. Photo: Thomas Samson/AFP
Sharapova, who Williams has beaten 18 times in a row, claimed in her recent memoir 'Unstoppable' that Serena “hated” her for hearing her cry after the 2004 Wimbledon final.
   
The fourth-round match at Roland Garros on Monday will be the first time the two have faced off since the American's win in the 2016 Australian Open quarter-finals — Sharapova's last match before serving a 15-month doping ban.
   
“I think the book was 100 percent hearsay, at least all the stuff I read and the quotes that I read, which was a little bit disappointing,” said Williams after her 6-3, 6-4 third-round win over Julia Goerges.
   
“I have cried in the locker room many times after a loss, and that's what I have seen a lot of people do. I think it's normal. It's a Wimbledon final, you know. So it's just, like, I think it would be more shocking if I wasn't in tears…
   
“The book was a lot about me. I was surprised about that, to be honest. You know, I was, like, 'oh, okay. I didn't expect to be reading a book about me, that wasn't necessarily true'.”
   
The 23-time Grand Slam champion, who holds a 19-2 record over Sharapova, is playing her first major tournament since winning the 2017 Australian Open, after giving birth to her daughter Olympia.
   
Williams's only two losses to fellow former world number one Sharapova came 14 years ago — in the 2004 Wimbledon final and at the WTA Tour Championships — before even the birth of Twitter and YouTube.
   
But both are on the road back towards the top of the sport after their recent absences.
   
Williams had played only four matches since taking time off due to pregnancy before arriving at Roland Garros.
   
Sharapova is seeded for the first time at a Grand Slam since her suspension for using meldonium and is playing her first French Open since 2015 after being refused a wildcard by tournament organisers last year.
   
But the 36-year-old thinks the Russian should be the favourite on Monday as she lacks playing time, while Sharapova produced her best tennis since returning to the court in dismantling former world number one Karolina 
Pliskova 6-2, 6-1.
   
“Quite frankly, she's probably a favourite in this match, for sure,” added Serena. “She's been playing for over a year now. I just started. So I'm just really trying to get my bearings and trying to feel out where I am and see where I can go.”
 
'Numbers don't lie'
 
The rivalry between the two has been a bitter one since the Russian's shock victory over Williams as a 17-year-old at Wimbledon, but she admitted that the “numbers don't lie”.
   
Sharapova has lost their last seven meetings in straight sets and has managed to take only three sets in those 18 straight losses.
 
“Any time you play against Serena you know what you're up against,” said the 31-year-old. “You know the challenge that is upon you. You know, despite the record that I have against her, I always look forward to coming out on the court and competing against the best player.
   
“I think there is a lot of things in her game that she's done much better than I have… Numbers don't lie.”
   
But for all the bad blood between the two over the years — often involving claims and counter-claims over their private lives — Sharapova added in her book that reconciliation may come once the on-court battles are over.
   
“Serena and I should be friends; we have the same passion. But we are not. I think, to some extent, we have driven each other. Maybe that's what it takes,” she wrote.
   
“Only when you have that intense antagonism can you find the strength to finish her off. Who knows? Some day, when all this is in our past, maybe we'll become friends.”
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