Reem Abulleil spoke to Serena Williams' coach Patrick Mouratoglou after her opening round win in Paris.
Serena Williams is not putting pressure on herself this fortnight at Roland Garros, where she contested her first Grand Slam match since the 2017 Australian Open, although she knows it’s not in her nature to do that.
You don’t win 23 majors by cutting yourself much slack.
“Are you here to compete, or are you here because you feel you can win the tournament?” a journalist asked her after her straight-sets victory over Kristyna Pliskova on Tuesday.
“I don’t know. I mean, I’m definitely here to compete and do the best that I can do, obviously,” replied the 36-year-old Serena.
“I’m not putting any pressure on myself as I normally do.”
She then paused for a second then added with a slightly lower voice and a hint of a smile: “I think deep down we all know the answer to that.”
Serena, ranked 451 in the world right now, may still be at the start of her comeback from maternity leave – she’s only played five matches in 14 months – but her coach Patrick Mouratoglou can firmly say that he has no doubt the American will be winning majors again, in what he describes as “the last stage of her career”.
“I don’t doubt [that she will win more Slams], that’s not my style and when you work with Serena you’re not supposed to doubt and there’s no reason to doubt because she’s achieved everything she wanted to achieve,” Mouratoglou told Sport360 in Paris on Tuesday, following Serena’s win.
“She doesn’t always succeed, sometimes she has to come back one, two, three times to get it, but at the end, she gets what she wants. I’m confident she will.”
Serena told the press after her match that she felt she was “on the right track” and singled out her serving as something she was pleased with from her opener against Pliskova. The pair combined for 28 aces during the match – 15 from Pliskova and 13 from Serena, who admits her serve speed can still go up a bit, and that she was focusing more on placement rather than speed in her clash with the Czech lefty.
Pliskova, ranked 70 in the world, says she was nervous at the start of the match and credits her serve for keeping her in the contest.
“I think she played better than I expected, so it was a tough match. I think she was moving quite okay, I expected a little bit she will be worse,” confessed Pliskova.
Serena was asked in her press conference is she thinks her opponents will be underestimating her during this comeback.
“I can’t answer that. Usually everyone I play doesn’t. But, you know, I’m just here enjoying myself and see what happens. It would be nice,” said Serena.
Mouratoglou considers her opening match a “great performance”.
“I think she did well, especially in the big moments of the match. Especially in the tiebreak for example, in the key moments she was able to lift her level, and this is really Serena. That’s one of the things that she has that is special, she feels the moment in the matches and lifts her level when it’s necessary and I think she did well,” said the Frenchman.
This was Serena’s first match since her opening round exit in Miami to Naomi Osaka in March. She was scheduled to play in Madrid and Rome prior to Roland Garros, but withdrew from both because she didn’t feel ready to compete at the level she wanted to.
Coming to the French Open having not played any matches on clay in two years may sound risky to some but Serena spent more than a month practicing on the red dirt at the Mouratoglou Academy in the south of France and her coach insists it was the right call to skip the tournaments she did.
“That was completely the plan,” said Mouratoglou.
“When we spoke, she came to Mouratoglou Academy and we did a few practices and I sat with her and told her she was not ready.
“And there were two options: Option one was to play Madrid and Rome to get some matches and then go to Roland Garros maybe not in the best shape, or option two, cancel the tournaments and work incredibly hard for five weeks to get to the physical and the tennis level, and I said to her that I personally trust more the Serena that is fit 100 per cent and ready to compete, with no matches, than the Serena that’s not 100 per cent fit with matches. And she said let’s do it like that then.”
Serena says those five weeks at the academy were fabulous because she got to spend quality time with her daughter Olympia while also focusing on her tennis.
Several ATP players practice at the Mouratoglou Academy and the likes of Thanasi Kokkinakis and Bernard Tomic got to have sessions with Serena.
“I rarely hit with ATP players, although I don’t know why, but it was great. It was a lot of fun. It was extremely difficult. I just stood in the corner because I’m not sure how I would have fared if we were playing points. It was a wonderful experience and it just kind of helped me get everything going and get my competition and competitive juices flowing,” said Serena.
Mouratoglou says those practices were beneficial for both Serena and the ATP players.
“They’re surprised. They don’t expect a woman to play like that, that’s what they tell me all the time,” said Mouratoglou.
“Because she doesn’t move back, she stays on the baseline even when they hit as hard as they can and she’s strong. She refuses to step back, she reaccelerates the ball, so they’re really impressed every time.
“And they’re happy, they all tell me whenever you want we can practice again. It’s fun and it’s useful for them too. And it’s good for her, because it’s difficult for her to play with better players and everybody needs to be challenged as much as possible to improve.
“And I think it was a great challenge for her to play with guys and show she has the level to play with them.”
Serena and Mouratoglou have gone through several difficult periods together. When they first joined forces in June 2012, Serena had just lost an opening round match to Virginie Razzano at the French Open. It remains the only Grand Slam first round defeat Serena ever conceded – from 67 contested.
Physically, Serena has gone through a lot since the birth of Olympia last September. She had serious life-threatening post-delivery complications including a blood clot in her lung. She said on Tuesday that she’s been mostly competing in pants to ensure proper blood circulation, and that the much talked-about catsuit she’s wearing in Paris has compression purposes as well – “It’s a fun suit, but it’s also functional so I can be able to play without any problems.”
Asked how he compares this current challenge with Serena compared to others they’ve faced in the past, Mouratoglou says: “It’s difficult to compare periods. But it’s definitely a tough period. Coming back physically, rebuild her body, rebuild her cardio, rebuild her game, that’s tough.
“And it has been in a way tougher than what she expected.
“That was a difficult moment, and it still is – until she wins another Slam, we can consider that it’s a tough moment.
“Once you start winning Grand Slams, I mean when she starts winning Grand Slams because not everyone does that, then the confidence is much higher and things go kind of – I mean it’s never easy but there is more confidence and more certainty.
“But now we have to rebuild that and in a way it’s a new challenge and it’s kind of a new career, the last stage of her career. I think she had several careers in her life, that’s probably the last one.”
Serena next faces No. 17 Ashleigh Barty, of Australia, in the second round at Roland Garros.