Lining another flat forehand into the net, Serena Williams shoved the air in disgust, as if admonishing a dance partner for repeatedly stepping on her toes. The fifth-seeded American looked out of step and out of sorts, fighting both herself and an inspired Virginie Razzano. Williams would win neither battle.
The 111th-ranked Frenchwoman rallied from a 1-5 deficit in the second-set tiebreaker, rolled to a 5-0 lead in the third set, then fought off a late Serena surge, converting her eighth match point to seal a shocking 4-6, 7-6 (5) 6-3 upset that spanned three hours, three minutes and sent French fans into a frenzy.
It was, by far, Razzano's biggest Grand Slam win, and it was Serena's first opening-round loss at a major. The 2002 French Open champion was 46-0 in the first round of Slams and undefeated on clay this year, but never really found her range or rhythm in an erratic effort. Serena careened from tight, tentative shots that sometimes landed in the middle of the court to impulsive, overly-ambitious blasts that sailed beyond the baseline; it all added up to 47 unforced errors. One of the best closers of the Open era gagged near the finish line today and choked back tears after losing six straight points in the second-set tiebreaker.
Credit Razzano for her resilience in playing through apparent calf cramps that caused her to squeal in pain at times, and which elicited a point penalty for hindrance late in the third set. When Williams' backhand landed long on the Razzano's eighth match point, she finally had cause for screaming celebration.
It was a particularly poignant moment for the 29-year-old crowd favorite, whose fiancé and former coach, Stephane Vidal, died of a a brain tumor eight days before her first-round match at last year's French Open. Wearing a black ribbon on her shirt and pain etched on her face, Razzano faced what she called "a mission impossible" in a somber first-round loss. Today, she played with passion and poise in pulling off an improbable comeback.
This was an adventure of a match with wild momentum shifts. Signs of stress were clear as Serena lost her first two service games before rallying to take the 46-minute first set on a Razzano double fault.
Williams crunched a forehand winner to seize a seemingly commanding 5-1 lead in the second-set tiebreaker—then she made a major mess of things. Serving at 5-2, Williams slammed a biting serve that a lunging Razzano blocked back. Williams, already mentally counting the point, did not play the return, assuming it would stray long. Instead, it landed on the line. At 5-3, Williams belted a backhand winner down the line that would have given her match point, but the linesman made a late call on the prior shot, prompting a replay, which Razzano won. By the time the red dust settled, Razzano reeled off six straight points and danced to a bathroom break at 7:59 p.m. Paris time with the match deadlocked. A dazed-looking Serena then completely disinegrated, as Razzano stormed out to a 5-0 lead.
Digging down to summon her competitive spirit, Williams found the line with a forehand return, broke for 2-5, then held at 15 for 3-5. The marathon, 23-minute, 12-deuce final game was a microcosm of the match, with spirited rallies and paralyzing nerves on display. On the fifth match point, Williams whipped a stunning backhand winner down the line that singed the sideline, prompting a collective groan from the fans. It seemed that shot might rouse her, but on this day Razzano would not be denied.
Razzano erupted in a wide smile when Williams' backhand sailed long on match point number eight; the woman who called the death of her fiance "permanent pain" created pure joy in her Paris return.