PARIS - Before this French Open, Serena Williams renewed her marriage vows with tennis. She made plain her “100% commitment” to the game after admitting that, away from the court, her personal life had become mired in serial disappointment.
Her heart broken, she turned for comfort to the game that has defined her, but to whom she has not always been unquestioningly faithful.
Over the years, she floated with hauteur above her sport – because she could. Tennis needed her, it was calculated, more than she needed tennis.
Indifferent to the rankings, she left the tour intermittently to recuperate from a variety of injuries and illnesses while at the same time embracing her many other projects.
It seemed not to worry her but it sent a message that tennis was no longer her priority. If Serena could not give herself totally to the game, surely, her days as an elite player were numbered.
It was encouraging, then, to hear that she had fallen back in love with tennis.
She had nearly died in 2011 from complications of that mysteriously severed foot in a Munich restaurant, but now she was fit again, and, with the relegation of the other distractions – the glamour and riches of her celebrity life, her schools projects in Africa, business deals and, most pointedly, relationship entanglements – tennis was waiting for her, open-armed.
In just over three hours in Paris on Tuesday night, Virginie Razzano, a player she had never met, a 29-year-old opponent rated the fourth best in France, broke Serena’s heart again.
“Nini”, as she is affectionately known, also has suffered personal tragedy, the death by cancer a year ago of her young fiance and coach, Stéphane Vidal.
Only Serena’s sister, Venus, with 15 appearances, has been in the main draw here more often than Razzano, who had her best run here four years ago, when she lost to Sam Stosur in the fourth round.
“Nini” has won two singles titles in her career. Serena has 13 slam titles to her name. So, losing in the first round for the only time in 47 majors was all the more painful given her new-found dedication – not to mention the unbearable drama of the match.
And where to now? She is still only 30 even if, curiously, she has always seemed older than 31-year-old Venus (herself struck down by a life-threatening virus last year). It is inconceivable either Williams girl will walk away from tennis in the immediate future.
They have, after all, just come back. If they are fit and winning, tennis is where they are most comfortable, a mutual need that ignores past infidelities.
However, the next time Serena steps on to a big court, probably at Wimbledon, her challenge will be to decide if this week’s disappointment left her diminished or more determined to recapture past glories. The odds are, informed by more lasting pain, she will get tennis in perspective.
“You know, I’ve been through so much in my life,” she said late on Tuesday night, “and, yeah, I’m not here. I’m not happy, by no means. I just always think things can be worse.”