Slow start for Serena nothing new

PARIS -- When Serena Williams lost the first set of her first-round match here Sunday after a six-hour rain delay that turned the first day of the French Open into a twi-night doubleheader, it was only natural for onlookers to ponder the big-picture goals at stake: her second title in the event and a possible calendar sweep of the Grand Slam events.

Williams, however, was thinking about the foundation of her house, not the roof. She came into Roland Garros with a remarkable 29-0 record in Slam first rounds. This is the rough cement championships are built on, and it gives her considerable satisfaction.

"There's no way I'm going home on Sunday," Williams said, referring to what is only the second-ever weekend start here. "It's not even Monday."

Most great players get bitten early in a Slam at least once. Williams, a chronic slow starter, would seem especially vulnerable to that. But digging out has also become a habit with her, and after losing her service in the first game of the second set, she flipped the famous Serena Switch.

"It would have been better for me if it hadn't rained," her opponent, Tsvetana Pironkova of Bulgaria, said in a post-mortem after Williams prevailed 5-7, 6-1, 6-1.

Well, maybe. To paraphrase a passage from the "Bull Durham" screenplay: Sometimes you win. Sometimes you lose. Sometimes it rains. Sometimes it rains AND you lose, especially if Williams is across the net and it is the curtain-raiser of a major.

It's hard to know whether to fault this eight-time Grand Slam winner for not getting down to business sooner against the No. 91 player in the world, or to admire her for always finding a way to seal the deal. Somewhere in the middle, there's a certain quaint charm to the fact that after all this time, Williams wants to win so badly that she comes out anxious.

"She still gets nervous," said analyst Pam Shriver, who watched most of the match from courtside. "In her warmup and her first two games, she looked cold -- physically, emotionally and mentally. She looked uptight. And clay is the X factor for her and most Americans, having the confidence to come back on it. But you always know she's going to compete and stay in there."

What began as an overcast day quickly turned chilly and threatening, and Williams, who wore a sundress-and-sports-bra combination that bared her arms and back, was exposed in more ways than one. She looked stiff and sluggish, lunging at some balls and tipping back on her heels to deal with others. She howled at herself on a few points, and eventually assisted the chair umpire with the decision to call a postponement by striding off the court down 5-6 in the first set with an unhappy expression, draping a jacket over her shoulders.

Williams had already had one chat with the chair. The same spectators who had greeted her warmly before the match now sensed a long, damp delay in store and there were scattered boos and catcalls.

After play was suspended, Williams ducked inside Suzanne Lenglen Stadium for a serious counseling session with her dad. Richard Williams did most of the talking as Serena kept her head down, nodding occasionally and clearly absorbing every word. This was real coaching, in contrast to the on-court let's-visit interludes she called for at the Sony Ericsson tournament in Miami almost as a lark.

Williams came out after the lengthy delay more warmly dressed, but it took a little while for her to get her engine out of idle. Pironkova, who knocked Venus Williams out in the first round of last year's Australian Open, broke Serena in the first game of the second set. Serena appeared visibly shaken. She dismissed that notion.

"I just think I make these faces that I have to stop making, because I hate when I watch film and I hate when I see those faces," Williams said. "I'm the baby. I was the youngest. I was always treated the best. I'm a whiner, a complainer. It doesn't help."

Yet it's a very grown-up talent to convert whining into winning in the space of a few shots. "Things started to move a bit faster for me," Pironkova said in a regretful tone. Williams found her feet, her power and her ID at the same time. By the third set, she was sliding home on the suddenly friendly red dirt.

Williams' clean sheet in Grand Slam first rounds puts her in an elite sorority. Other women who have accomplished the feat include Chris Evert (55-0) and Margaret Smith Court (47-0). Any frustration Williams felt with herself disappeared when Pironkova smacked a backhand wide on match point. All done. Next?

"I have to knock on wood because I know I've never lost," Williams said. "It's gonna happen maybe one day, but I'm really proud of that record. …I guess I'm a perfectionist. I'm always trying to make things perfect. I know it's impossible, but I'm always trying."

And in the natural course of things, that means winning some imperfect matches on any day of the week.

Bonnie DeSimone is a freelancer who is covering the French Open for ESPN.com.