Williams, a 13-time major singles champion and the fifth seed this year at Roland Garros, was leading by a set and 5-1 in the second-set tiebreaker against Virginie Razzano of France, a player ranked 106 places below the American.
Razzano won the next six points to even yesterday’s match, swept five straight games in the final set and then held off a comeback by Williams to win 4-6, 7-6 (7-5), 6-3 on her eighth match point.
“The whole match, I just didn’t play at all the way I have been practicing,” Williams said at a news conference. “I don’t know how many errors I ended up making, but I haven’t been playing like that in the past.”
Williams, 30, entered the year’s second major tournament with a 17-0 record on clay in 2012, and U.K. bookmaker William Hill Plc (WMH) made her a 5-2 favorite to win her first French Open title since 2002.
Instead, she lost in the opening round for the first time in her 47 Grand Slam appearances. Her earliest previous defeat at one of the four majors was in the second round by sister Venus at the 1998 Australian Open when Serena was 16 years old.
“I kept going for my shots, which always works for me,” Williams said. “It didn’t work out today. You know, that’s it. That’s life.”
Dramatic Final Game
Trailing 5-3 in the final set, Williams failed to convert five break points against a player struggling with cramps in her right leg. The final game also had eight match points, 12 deuces and two point penalties against the 29-year-old Razzano for screaming out in pain during rallies, before Williams hit a backhand long for her 47th unforced error of the match.
“It’s incredible, it’s the most beautiful victory of my career,” Razzano, who double faulted on her first match point, told reporters. “When I was up 5-0, I was getting cramp on my legs. Couldn’t go on my quadriceps. I told myself not to think about what I was feeling. Don’t think about the pain. Just focus on the ball.”
Williams has not won a Grand Slam title since 2010 Wimbledon, after which she nearly missed a year because of foot surgery and a blood clot in her lung.
‘Kind of Odd’
“I never really felt anything slipping away or anything,” said Williams, who beat top-ranked Victoria Azarenka 6-1, 6-3 earlier this month in the final of a clay-court tournament in Madrid. “I just felt I couldn’t get a ball in play. I just felt like I was hitting late and, I mean, how can you hit late on a clay court? It was kind of odd.”
Razzano lost in the first round in Paris last year, a week after her fiance and coach died of a brain tumor. She said she felt her victory against Williams was meant to be.
“I felt I was ready to go ahead and live my life professionally and personally,” she said. “Was it destiny? Was it fate? I don’t know. I wanted to win that match.”
“Hopefully I can do better, win a match in that event,” Williams said.
After that, she’ll regroup and start preparing for the grass courts of Wimbledon, a Grand Slam event she’s won four times. The Olympic tennis tournament will be held there this year as well.
“Just figure out what I did wrong and not do it again, learn from it,” Williams said. “That’s the best thing I can do.”
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Christopher Elser at email@example.com