Commentary

Revenge fuels Serena Williams

Updated: May 30, 2013, 5:49 PM ET
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

PARIS -- A year ago, Serena Williams broke down and cried after losing a second-set tiebreaker here to Frenchwoman Virginie Razzano. Technically, that first-round match wasn't over -- it was all square at a set apiece -- but, perhaps in retrospect, it was.

The No. 111-ranked Razzano scored one of the greatest upsets in Grand Slam history, sending Serena home 4-6, 7-6 (5), 6-3. It was Williams' first loss in the first round of a major after going 46-0, and it ended a 17-0 run on clay. She had a staggering 47 unforced errors.

Afterward, Williams was philosophical.

[+] EnlargeSerena Williams
Matthew Stockman/Getty ImagesSerena Williams is playing with a steadfast mission here in Paris: one that ends only with a winner's trophy.
"Yeah, it is disappointing -- but it's life," Williams said. "Things could be a lot worse. I haven't had the easiest past six months. Nothing I can't deal with."

Well, she was right about that.

Since losing the match, Serena won the title at Wimbledon, the gold medal at the Olympics in London, the U.S. Open title and the WTA's year-end championship. This year she has regained the No. 1 ranking, and her record since that French Open embarrassment is a scintillating 69-3.

There has been a steeliness about Williams as she has progressed through the draw. She has dropped all of four total games in her first two matches; Caroline Garcia, from France, was fortunate to get three games. Sorana Cirstea, the No. 26 seed, may prove a sterner test when they meet Friday. Or maybe not.

The thing is, she seems very calm and composed," said Chris Evert, an 18-time Grand Slam singles champion and analyst for ESPN. "She's said that when she was young she didn't appreciate the history of the game. Well, now she knows it's all about the history.

"She's not going to have another 10 years out here, maybe two or three? She wants to rack up the titles, especially the majors. I think her focus is very clear."

To review, Serena has won two of the three Grand Slams since losing to Razzano and is the overwhelming favorite to make it 3-for-4. All nine of ESPN's analysts chose her to win; for what it's worth, seven-time French Open champion Rafael Nadal received only five votes of confidence.

One of those experts is Pam Shriver, who has said several times she believes that revenge is something that fuels Williams.

"When you lose a match, you know that it turns something on," Serena said Wednesday. "Like, 'OK, I'm going to have to be ready for this player or this player, it doesn't matter, because they have beaten me before.'

"So you just know that you have to be a better player the next time if you can be a better player, or at least do your best. So that's all for me. That's all. I try."

Can it work for a tournament, too? Can the thirst for revenge drive a player higher?

"I don't know if it's extra motivation, or it could be nerves," she said. "Or save face, like, 'OK, I don't want to lose again. If I want to prove that I can play well, I want to prove that I can win this match.' So I think it's a little bit of both."

One thing you won't see this year is Serena and sister Venus winning a third doubles crown at Roland Garros. After receiving a wild card, they pulled out Wednesday, but no reason was given. It's possible that Venus' balky back is the culprit. The Williams sisters have won 13 Grand Slam doubles titles, including the 1999 and 2010 French Opens.

Years ago, Serena heard that French was a popular language in Africa, where she hoped to visit and do good work someday. So in sixth grade, she first studied the language. Now that she has an apartment in Paris and a French coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, it sometimes creeps into her everyday life.

After her first-round win over Anna Tatishvili, Serena did her on-the-court interview in a passable French, with a barely noticeable accent. "I'm a beginner," she told the crowd.

Speaking French to a stadium of full of French people, she said, is "way, way more nerve-racking than playing tennis."

So, it appears her acceptance speech for becoming a French Open champion for only the second time -- the first title since 2002 -- will be far more daunting than the 10-day, on-the-court process.

After her second-round victory, she was asked what she was going to work on in practice.

"I'd like to improve everything," Serena said. "My French, too."

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.