Commentary

Surprise, it's all about Serena

Updated: May 24, 2012, 2:46 PM ET
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

The French Open is famous for delivering quirky champions, particularly on the women's side. Aside from three consecutive titles for Justine Henin, the past eight years saw these women hoist the silver trophy at Roland Garros:

Anastasia Myskina (2004), Ana Ivanovic(2008), Svetlana Kuznetsova(2009), Francesca Schiavone (2010) and Li Na(2011).

[+] EnlargeSerena Williams
Andre Durand/Getty ImagesAmazing as it might seem, Serena Williams has not won the French Open in a decade.

Myskina, who won all of 10 career titles, retired five years ago, is a mother and is younger than Schiavone, who turns 32 in June. Ivanovic hasn't won an important title since her breakthrough in Paris. Kuznetsova remains the only one of the five to have won another major title.

In that spirit of surprise, we humbly offer the possibility of another off-beat champion for Paris this year: Serena Williams.

It's been a decade since her first -- and only -- triumph on the red clay. The sticky surface seems at odds with her power game, and there were times in Rome in which she stumbled and fell. Yet, Serena has crafted a fabulous 17-0 record on the dirt this year -- the best in all of tennis. She is 27-2 overall, also the best mark among her professional peers.

Her success on clay this spring makes her -- and this feels peculiar to even think, much less write -- the favorite heading into the Roland Garros event, which begins Sunday. And don't read too much into that withdrawal from her semifinal match last week in Rome because of lower back tightness. It means Serena is serious about winning this thing. In a sweet slice of irony, she is actually overplayed coming into Paris.

"I absolutely love clay," Serena said after winning in Madrid. "I played on hard court until I was 11, then until I turned 16 I only played on clay courts. It's really a myth about me not liking clay."

After granting Li a walkover in Rome, Serena explained: "I'm so sad and sorry I had to pull out of what has become my favorite tournament. This was a good week to get better, and I'm confident that I'll be 100 percent. I just want to relax and get ready for the next few months."

Pam Shriver, and ESPN analyst, watched Serena run through the Charleston tournament in early April.

"She looked great there," Shriver said from Los Angeles. "Actually, Charleston and Madrid are very similar surfaces, pretty fast for clay. She's playing it like clay but with an aggressive mindset. Through the years I think Americans have tried too hard to change their game, play more patiently, which means less aggressive.

"She's not changing her game on clay. She's still hitting it hard."

Just when you thought the WTA had been rescued from anarchy -- with Victoria Azarenka and Maria Sharapova solidly lodged at Nos. 1 and 2, respectively, along comes Hurricane Serena to blow it all up. She beat the top two by identical scores of 6-1, 6-3 in the quarterfinals (Sharapova) and final (Azarenka) of Madrid in something that has become her trademark.

Serena has now beaten the No. 1- and No. 2-ranked players in the same tournament seven times, the all-time record; her sister Venus is second, with four.

United States Fed Cup captain Mary Joe Fernandez watched Serena go 2-0 on the clay at Ukraine in April, sending the U.S. back to the World Group.

"Her style of game translates to any surface," Fernandez said. "Maybe she needs five shots to hit a winner instead of three. It's not that big of an adjustment for her. There's not a clay-court specialist right now like Justine Henin.

"I think Serena has a good shot in Paris, along with Azarenka and Sharapova -- even though they all prefer hard courts."

Azarenka, on balance, has been the best WTA player so far this year but has recently tailed off. Sharapova, like Azarenka, has never been to a final at Roland Garros, but titles in Stuttgart and Rome suggest it might happen this year. Schiavone, the 2010 champion, has been struggling this year, and 2011 winner Li just began finding her form in Rome. Reigning Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitiova lost to Angelique Kerber in Rome. No. 3 Agnieszka Radwanska lost her first match in Rome, as did former World No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki.

Lindsay Davenport, who will be a Tennis Channel analyst in Paris, hasn't completely bought into the Serena role as favorite.

"I believe she has a better chance this year than in previous years," Davenport said. "She's much fitter and slimmed down; she looks like she's in fighting shape. It could depend on the weather conditions. When it's cold and rainy, it's not quite as easy to hit through opponents.

"The other women on top -- Azarenka, Radwanska, Stosur -- move well. I think that will come into play a little bit. At the age of 30, it would surprise me if Serena won. I'm not saying she can't do it, just that it would be a pleasant surprise."

Serena is well aware of the void. And after missing nearly a year, she has watched six Grand Slam titles go to other women. Like Roger Federer, she's a 30-year-old who would like to add to her leading active Grand Slam total, which stands at 13.

Shriver sees similarities between the two.

"They're turning back the clock a bit," Shriver said. "They've been smart with their careers and are examples of athletes who should have a lot left in their tank in early 30s. I feel like Serena's finding it easier to be a dedicated tennis player. Her willingness to focus on the task is much better, not just a month or two, but over time.

"It would be at least two wins in all majors, so I'll bet second French Open is right up there for her. If she doesn't win at least one of the three majors over the summer, I think I'd be really surprised. Who else you feel comfortable putting money on? Serena would be my choice."

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.