Serena Williams has competed in 18 French Opens and her professional career has spanned 25 years, but as she turned 39 on Saturday, what most stood out was how little some things have changed.
As always, she was one of the first players on the Roland Garros grounds for her 9am practice. As many of her rivals were waking up, she was done for the day. Her motivation remains clear.
“I honestly never thought I would be playing at my age. I mean, I don’t quite look 39,” said Williams, smiling. “But I don’t know when it’s going to stop for me. I just have fun. When I feel it’s over, it’s over. But I could have guaranteed and pretty much bet my life that I would not have been playing at 39. This is why I don’t bet.”
The standards Williams holds herself to are still in the stratosphere. Asked how she processes a solid showing such as her US Open semi-final loss to a sublime Victoria Azarenka, Williams shrugged. “A semi-final is always great. Is it great for me? Absolutely not. That’s just how I feel. That’s how I always feel. It is what it is. I’m happy that I can feel that way. I’m in a position in my career where I cannot be satisfied. I don’t want to sit here and say: ‘Oh, I’m happy.’ Because I’m not.”
A three-times Roland Garros champion, Williams will not begin the tournament as favourite on her least effective surface. The 2018 champion, Simona Halep, arrives in Paris on a 14-match streak after winning last week in Rome. Garbiñe Muguruza – the 2016 champion – Victoria Azarenka and Elina Svitolina are all clear contenders.
It remains to be seen if Britain’s Johanna Konta can keep up. After breaking through on clay last year with finals in Rabat and the Italian Open before a Roland Garros semi-final, a second-round loss to Muguruza in Rome is her only preparation this year. She has one of the toughest first round matches, the 16-year-old prodigy Coco Gauff. No stranger to red clay, Gauff won the 2018 Roland Garros junior title.
Konta said: “It doesn’t matter if she’s 14 or 40. She’s there for a reason. It’s going out on court respecting the player that I’m about to play. I’m going to be playing against the tennis that she brings, not her social media following, not her persona.
“I’m going out there to play the player that she is, and equally she is with me. As long as I can keep a good perspective, I’ll give my best chance to try and be competitive and do the best that I can.”