PARIS: Serena Williams plays Lucie Safarova in the French Open final on Saturday and the odds, on paper and also by the statistics, are hugely in the American’s favour.
Only the top seed’s fragile state of health, it seems, stands in the way of what would be a 20th Grand Slam title — just two shy of the Open-era record of 22 set by Steffi Graf.
A new title to add to her collection would also take her halfway to winning all four Grand Slam titles in the same year — a feat only previously achieved by four women in the history of the sport, the last being Graf in 1988.
At 33, Williams is the consumate finisher in the top tournaments. In 23 Grand Slam finals, she has lost just four times — twice to sister Venus and once to each of Maria Sharapova and Samantha Stosur.
In contrast, Safarova, at 28, five years younger than her opponent, will be playing in her first Grand Slam final after 12 years as a pro, mostly spent in the shadows.
Her head-to-head record against Williams is a dismal 0-8 and prior to this year she had never made it past the last 16 at Roland Garros in 10 previous unremarkable Paris campaigns.
To add weight to the challenge ahead of her, only twice in the history of the French Open has a player ranked outside the top 10 seeds won the title — once in 1933 and more recently in 2010 when Francesca Schiavone triumphed.
The Italian though grabbed her moment of glory against Australian Stosur on that occasion, the mighty Williams is an alltogether different prospect.
Williams fighting illness
Except for the fact that Williams is not well physically. She has struggled from the start of the tournament and things got worse when she came down with the flu after her third-round win over Victoria Azarenka.
She has lost the first set in four of her six matches to date and it’s been her fighting spirit and the best serve ever seen in the women’s game that has kept her afloat.
Williams’ 4-6, 6-3, 6-0 win over Swiss surprise Timea Bacsinszky in the semi-finals was at times painful to watch as she coughed and spluttered and staggered about the court fighting her illness.
Struck by another bout of coughing, she was forced to abandon her courtside interview immediately after clinching the win over Bacsinszky after saying just a few words. Later she told US TV that she had never felt so ill.
“I caught the flu after my third-round match and have been struggling ever since,” she said. “I never thought I could win and I didn’t want to go to a third set. But I thought that if I was going to lose I had better go for winners. I was so tired and the next thing I knew I was in a third set. I don’t know what happened.”
On her prospects for Saturday’s final, she added: “I just hope I can get better from here.”
Safarova, a late blossomer whose nice-girl reputation belies a steely determination, said that she has nothing to lose against Williams in what will be the biggest match of her career. Talking before the Williams match ended she said: “I mean Serena is number one in the world, great player.
“So whoever will be there, I will just go there and play my game and obviously try and get the trophy.”
If she wins she will be the first Czech player to win since Hana Mandlikova in 1981 — achieved before Czechoslovakia split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Her hopes of doing that could well depend on if medication can get Williams back to health in time.