Serena Williams said she thought about withdrawing from the French Open, she was so sick with flu.
Twenty-four hours later, the 33-year-old screamed, swore and even played a shot left-handed on her way to beating Czech Lucie Safarova 6-3, 6-7 (2-7), 6-2. It’s Williams’s third Roland Garros title, moving her within two of Steffi Graf’s Open era record haul of 22 major championships.
“Everything’s possible,” Patrick Mouratoglou, her coach since 2012, said in an interview when asked if Williams could tie the German’s record. “She senses she can dominate tennis.”
Williams won her 19th major at the Australian Open in January to overtake Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert. The all-time record is held by Australia’s Margaret Court, who won 24 majors between 1960 and 1973.
If Williams wins Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, she’ll have completed the career grand slam of all four majors in one year for the first time. Graf was the last player to do so, in 1988. Williams completed what the American dubbed a “Serena Slam” of four in a row by winning in Melbourne in 2003.
“Why not?,” Mouratoglou said, when asked about the calendar grand slam. “That’s probably the most difficult thing to do in tennis, so that would be something incredible. It’s going to be very difficult but it’s possible.”
Today, Novak Djokovic will face Stan Wawrinka of Switzerland in the men’s final as the top-seeded Serbian attempts to win the one tennis major that’s eluded him.
Djokovic, 28, has won 17 of the 20 times he’s played 30-year-old Wawrinka, with the last defeat coming in the quarterfinals of the 2014 Australian Open.
Speaking to a small group of reporters a few hours after her victory, Williams said she’s not ready to talk about the calendar grand slam just yet.
“I’m not going there, and I’m keeping my word,” Williams said, in between coughing fits. “I’m not missing it, I’ve got a Serena Slam, and I’m close to another Serena Slam. But it’s rare.”
First is Wimbledon, which starts in three weeks. Although she’s a five-time champion, Williams hasn’t got past the last 16 in the past two years.
“Wimbledon, the monkey’s on my back because I’ve not done well there in a couple of years considering how well I’ve done there for so many years,” Williams said. “That’s the one I really want to do well.”
When asked why she’s struggled in recent years, Williams said: “To be perfectly honest, I’ve never really liked grass. I don’t know how I’ve done so well on it. Now that it’s a slower surface, it’ll help me out a little bit.”
She’ll go home to recover before making the switch to grass.
“I need to work on some things, particularly when it comes to grass-court tennis, and hopefully I can do it.”
Although she’s the oldest No. 1 the women’s tour has ever had, there aren’t any signs of a changing of the guard. Her victory extends Williams’ lead over second-ranked Czech Petra Kvitova to 4,421 points. A grand slam title is worth 2,000 points.
For the past two weeks in Paris, it looked like Williams would never get to the Roland Garros final. Her victory against Safarova was her fifth three-set match. Before this year’s French Open, Williams had never been forced into more than four three-set matches at one major.
Williams was close to pulling out the event altogether, lying in bed with flu until 4 p.m. on Friday after her semifinal the evening before. She called a representative from the women’s tour to tell her she may not make the final.
In the end, she recovered to clinch her third French Open title.
She said major title No. 20 “is up there,” with some of her biggest achievement “because I was not at my best.”
In the end, it all came down to her fighting spirit.
“If I’m losing, I’m going out swinging, and that’s when I think I play my best tennis,” Williams said. “Once I decide that, I start my game, and when I’m playing my game, it’s difficult for me to lose.”