Serena Williams is closing in on Steffi Graf.
Despite still not being 100% due to an illness that’s affected her for around a week, the American beat Lucie Safarova 6-3 6-7 (2) 6-2 to win the French Open on Saturday and claim a landmark 20th major.
But this after Williams did the almost unthinkable by blowing a 4-1 advantage in the second set and trailing 2-0 in the third.
Williams recovered and now only Graf has amassed more majors in the Open Era at 22. With the American still going strong at the age of 33, Graf’s record is under serious threat.
The world No. 1 even has a realistic chance of matching the German in 2015, since she’s claimed five Wimbledon titles and is the three-time defending champion at the U.S. Open.
Of course that would mean Williams winning all four majors in a season, something not accomplished since Graf did it in 1988.
But who’d rule her out?
By winning in Melbourne and Paris, Williams already became the first player since Jennifer Capriati in 2001 to win the first two grand slams in the same season.
Heading into Saturday, it looked as if Williams might be vulnerable against Safarova, the 13th seed who was making her first appearance in a grand slam final.
Williams said Friday she had been suffering from the flu and “collapsed” after her comeback three-set victory in the semifinals against Timea Bacsinszky.
She didn’t practice Friday, either, opting to stay at her apartment in Paris and rest.
And when Williams went off court just before the final was about to start, a dramatic encounter seemed on the cards. It ended up that way, though no one would have predicted it when Williams led by two breaks in the second set.
Rallying from a set down to overcome Anna-Lena Friedsam, Victoria Azarenka, Sloane Stephens and then Bacsinszky, overturning a 2-0 deficit in the third was merely child’s play for Williams.
The illness, coupled with the aftereffects of an elbow injury that forced her to withdraw from the Italian Open in Rome, led to Williams’ usually dominant serve only working in spurts this tournament and little changed in the final.
In the first set Williams struck four aces and captured 80% of her first-serve points.
Her return game was working, too. Williams manufactured the first break by ripping a cross-court return for 3-1.
Safarova, 0-8 against Williams prior to Saturday, saved a set point with a forehand winner that wrong-footed her foe but Williams held serve a game later.
It was the first time the Czech dropped a set all tournament.
When Williams stormed to the double-break lead in the second, the trophy presentation was only moments away. Williams may have thought it, too, given how she celebrated when breaking for 4-1 — raising her arms in the air.
But Williams inexplicably plummeted, Safarova’s level improved and double faults on break points in the sixth and eighth games made the score 4-4.
Williams soon recovered, breaking with a stunning backhand cross-court return for 6-5.
Yet once again she couldn’t complete the job.
Safarova broke back and forced a tiebreak with a backhand winner down the line. The crowd, wanting more tennis, loved it.
They were even louder when Williams’ forehand sailed into the set to officially force a decider.
Williams, not prone to panicking, had to be slightly alarmed however when trailing in the third.
Trying to pump herself up during the changeover at 2-1, Williams awoke. She surged to nine straight points and moved ahead 3-2.
This time there was no comeback for Safarova, who fell behind 4-2 when her backhand down the line sailed long. Williams wrapped up her third French Open title by forcing an error.
She paused for a moment, then dropped her racket in disbelief.
Novak Djokovic, like Williams a world No. 1 and the champion at the Australian Open, plays in Sunday’s men’s final against Stan Wawrinka. Djokovic completed a semifinal win over Andy Murray earlier Saturday, 6-3 6-3 5-7 5-7 6-1.
If he triumphs, then Djokovic becomes the eighth man in history to win all four majors.
By Ravi Ubha