Serena Williams took the scenic route to her 2-6, 6-1, 6-0 first-round victory at the French Open on Monday against Russian world No 83 Vitalia Diatchenko.
Returning from a knee injury that saw her complete just one tournament ahead of the French Open, the 10th-ranked Williams continues her quest for an all-time record-equalling 24th grand slam title in Paris.
Ahead of her second round against Japan’s Kurumi Nara on Thursday, Reem Abulleil caught up with her French coach Patrick Mouratoglou at Porte d’Auteuil.
What did you make of Serena’s first round?
The first set was not very satisfying, the general level of play to say the least. I feel like, emotionally, she was not on the court at that time and it took her one set, but I think afterwards the level was OK. She was also playing a player who doesn’t give any rhythm, so when you don’t feel good it’s difficult because you don’t have any rallies. But she switched from everything wrong to a very decent level and that’s the thing I want to remember.
I was honestly very surprised, because she is playing well in practice, she’s moving OK. I don’t see any problems so that was really a surprise to me. And for her too, she didn’t expect that at all.
Serena mentioned she thought about missing the French Open, how close was she to pulling out?
I don’t think she was that close not to play, because even though she has very little time, even though it looks impossible, she always thinks it’s possible, and that’s one of her main qualities. I think at some point she thought maybe it’s not reasonable, it’s not something we should do to play Roland Garros, it makes more sense to prepare for Wimbledon, but she thought, ‘I’ll find a way’. I think that’s exactly what she went through in that process.
She always has high expectations, but considering her recent injury, is the mentality a bit different this tournament?
No, she doesn’t think like that. She thinks day after day. She is very special mentally, she is very positive all the time, she is always thinking, ‘It’s going to be OK, I’ll find my way, whatever happens’. I think that’s great. It’s not something I want to change.
What level of pressure do you think she is facing as she continues to chase Margaret Court’s all-time record of 24 majors?
The pressure level is the highest that I’ve seen. Because she is playing for history and everybody puts her so high, there is even less room for failure. But it’s OK. I think that is the meaning of, ‘pressure is a privilege’. The more pressure you have, it means you’re better than before, the pressure gets higher. So she has achieved much more now than seven years ago. The pressure is much, much higher.
A few players feel that the group of title contenders at Roland Garros this year is perhaps a bit smaller than in the past. Do you agree?
No. I think this is one of the most open Roland Garros tournaments I’ve seen. The list of the potential winners is really huge.
Naomi Osaka is going for history too, because no one has ever won their first two majors, then gone on to win a third. What do you make of what she has been able to pull off so far?
First of all, she definitely has the game for sure. And second, she has to win one or two matches, like [on Tuesday against Anna Karolina Schmiedlova], something she also did in Australia against Hsieh Su-Wei, and she is someone that builds the confidence very fast.
Before the US Open, I saw her play in Cincinnati and lose in the first round. The level was incredibly low. A few matches after, at the US Open, the level was incredibly high. So I think there is a mental process in her that makes her become an incredible competitor after a few wins.
The semi-final against Madison Keys at the US Open, she saved all the break points in a way that was just incredible, and again, two weeks before, she was not the same player. That’s something very special. So I think mentally she has it, and of course she has a great game.
Stefanos Tsitsipas trains at your academy. Do you think he’s ready to win his first grand slam here?
I think he’s ready but I think he can still play tennis much better. Still has big room for improvement. Ready? Yes. But he’s not the only one ready, there are three others guys (Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer) that are ready too. If you want to win a grand slam you have to beat two of them back-to-back, over five sets, and I think this is something really difficult to achieve.
Yes he is ready, and I know he’s ready because when he lost against Rafa in Australia, he was so disappointed. He was as disappointed as someone who has lost in the first round. That loss made him forget about everything he’s done before, like beating Roger in the fourth round. Then you know the guy is ready.
Stefanos seems like a very fast-learner. He looked devastated after his semi-final loss to Rafael Nadal in Australia, but bounced back in a very impressive way…
He learns from everything, he learns incredibly fast. When something like that happens, first of all he will think, ‘What should I have done?’ he will try to learn. And second, this anger he will use it for practice, for fighting even more in the next matches. He’s going to use everything, he is using everything. That’s why he’s so good. It’s one of the reasons.
Now can he beat the two? Yes he can beat two top-three in a row and win a grand slam, but it’s probably one of the most difficult things probably to do in the history of tennis because we have the three best players of the history playing at the same time. But he beat all of them already, so he can beat each of them.
Compared to the rest of the Next Gen field, do you see Stefanos rising to the top and staying there for a long time?
I see what I’ve seen from day one, it didn’t change. I said the same thing when he was 16 years old. That this guy is an incredible competitor, he is a guy that beats guys who are better than him. Second, he is very ambitious. He wants it, he is incredibly focused on his game, on tennis, on what he wants to achieve. I don’t want to talk about his game, that’s not the most important. The most important is these qualities. I think he has what it takes to be at the top of the game.
The other ones have a lot of qualities, there are others that maybe can too, I’m not saying he’s the only one who can, I think he’s the one who will. I’ve believed in him since he was 16.
Have Stefanos and Serena ever hit together at your academy? What was it like?
It was cool. Serena liked it a lot. I think Stefanos too, he was very happy to play with her. There was a good intensity, they both wanted to show it.
I got to watch Rudolf Molleker during qualifying, and saw his first round. He also trains at your academy. What can you tell us about him?
I think he has a very bright future, same as Alexei Popyrin. First he’s an incredible athlete, like Stefanos. I think he has an incredible backhand. I think he’s tough. And I think he carries himself quite well also, and he has a good opinion of himself, which is very important in our sport. It’s such an asset when you really believe in yourself and I think he has that.