The American powerhouse claimed a second Roland Garros crown last
year - 11 years after her first - and warmed up for the defense of
her crown by winning the Rome title on Sunday, dropping just one set
and 22 games all week.
It was a return to the form that helped Williams win 11 titles in
2013 and proof, if any were needed, that the fire within burns as
ferociously as ever as she returns to the city she calls her second
home chasing an 18th major singles that would tie her with Chris
Evert and Martina Navratilova.
The former French Open champion Li Na is probably her main rival as
the Chinese attempts to become the first player since Jennifer
Capriati in 2001 to win the year's first two slams.
Maria Sharapova, winner in 2012 and runner-up last year, will also
be confident of a strong run after beating Li on the way to claiming
the Madrid title earlier this month.
Poland's gritty world No.3 Agnieszka Radwanska, and Serbian duo
Jelena Jankovic and Ana Ivanovic, the champion in 2008, will also be
strong contenders while Simona Halep, the aggressive Romanian
baseliner who has blasted into the top four, is more than capable of
causing an upset.
Whoever Williams faces, however, she will not be feeling any extra
pressure just because she is defending champion.
"Usually I'm like, 'Oh my God, I have to defend'. This time I'm
going to be cool with it," Williams, who has bought a second Paris
apartment near the Eiffel Tower, said recently when looking ahead to
the French Open.
"I've been feeling that way for a while now. I think that's a good
way to feel, since I won so many titles last year."
Ominously for her rivals, Williams's previous two French Open
triumphs came following a title run in Rome.
Former semi-finalist and reigning Wimbledon champion Marion Bartoli,
now retired, said Williams's match temperament was her biggest asset
and the reason that she still sets the standard.
"I'm so impressed with how focused she is going into every grand
slam," Bartoli, who will work as a pundit for ITV and Eurosport this
year, told Reuters.
"She doesn't act like she's a favorite. She is just focused on
winning every single match which is why she is a champion. She goes
into every match thinking she needs to play her best tennis, not
that she's the favorite."
Gone are the days, it seems, when a teenager would jump out of the
pack to capture a grand slam.
World number two Li is also 32 and, like Williams, appears to be
still improving. She showed with her magnificent 2011 run in Paris
when becoming the first player from an Asian country to win a grand
slam singles title that she has the tools and the temperament to
survive two weeks of claycourt battles.
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A second-round defeat last year to American Bethanie Mattek-Sands
left her at a low ebb but she rebounded impressively, reaching at
least the quarter-finals in 13 of her next 14 tournaments and
winning this year's Australian Open.
"I'm feeling pretty good," Li said during her run to the
quarter-finals of Rome last week. "I'm playing some high-quality
matches. And I'm feeling pretty loose - I'm just going to do my best
Sharapova, now comfortable sliding around on clay after looking
clumsy on it earlier in her career, will benefit from being slightly
under the radar this year after a shoulder injury meant a slow start
to the year.
The former world No.1, now down at eighth in the WTA rankings,
returned to her best form once the claycourt season started, winning
back-to-back titles in Stuttgart and Madrid.
"I've done a really good job of transitioning from the hard to the
clay and really improving physically and recovering well from match
to match," the Russian told the WTA's website.
"I've benefited from that in the last couple of years. I enjoy
playing on all surfaces. But I'm really happy about changing my
results on clay the last few years."
A dark horse for the title could be Romanian Halep - the most
improved player on the Tour in the last couple of years.
Wins against Ivanovic and Petra Kvitova on the way to the final in
Madrid would have given her plenty of confidence as she bids to
avoid a hat-trick of first-round exits at Roland Garros.
"Last year I was top 20, now I'm top five so its a big difference,"
she said. "I'm enjoying this time because it's the best in my
(Reporting by Martyn Herman; editing by Robert Woodward)
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