SHE may be renowned for the kind of power tennis which usually translates better to the grass of Wimbledon and the hard courts of the United States and Australia than the clay of Roland Garros, but in the last 18 months Mademoiselle Serena Williams has become quite the Francophile.
Not only has she discovered a productive working arrangement with respected French coach (and rumoured romantic partner) Patrick Mouratoglou, practising regularly at his academy in the outskirts of Paris, but she maintains an apartment in the city where she spends much of her season.
She arrives in Roland Garros as the reigning champion, after adding to her 2002 title and is a good bet to make it a hat-trick this fortnight. That would see her move level with Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova on 19 in the list of all-time Grand Slam winners.
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"The French seems to be opening up for her," said Evert, a Roland Garros champion on seven occasions between 1974 and 1986. "She has an apartment there. She lives there. She practices a lot there. Patrick, her coach, is French. She's had good success there. As long as she's fit, if she's healthy and motivated, she's the one to beat. And I think this tournament will motivate her.
"She's learned to play on the clay a lot better from Patrick. She's improved her defence skills and she's always had the offence skills. She's fitter. She's moving better. She is patient with herself. She doesn't have to go for the winner on the fourth shot; she can wait eight or nine shots and go for the opening. She's more intelligent and thinking more clearly on the clay than she ever has.
"I don't think she will feel the pressure. She's played enough tennis. She knows what her place in history is now. She's gunning for those Grand Slam titles."
Evert's colleague in the ESPN com- mentary booth, Patrick McEnroe, agrees. "I never thought I'd say this but clay might actually be Serena's best surface now. Obviously in her career she's certainly been better on the faster courts, but it's almost like she's less susceptible to an upset on clay now because she's so consistent and steady. She loves the clay. It's been a huge part of her motivation the last couple years."