Virginie Razzano first played in the main draw of Roland Garros as a 14-year-old in 1998, and she lost in the first round eight times in her 11 attempts, including the last two. But not this time; she incredibly knocked out Serena Williams, 4-6, 7-6 (5), 6-3. It was the first time the American, currently ranked No. 5, suffered a first-round loss at a major. Ever.
Razzano, now 29, is a far cry from the raven-haired, deep blue-eyed youth we've known for many years. You know how certain momentous events in life—falling deeply in love, losing a loved one, a battle with a long illness—can alter a person's very physical presence? Razzano is now lean and sinewy, almost gaunt, but in a way that only makes her more striking. Not all of that tempering can have come from age, an athlete's conscientious diet, a fitness regimen. It was at this time last year that she lost Stephane Vidal, her fiancé and former coach, to a brain tumor.
Fate may not have been very kind to Razzano, at least not in that one towering way. But fate has also been known to be fickle, which is probably the mantra that Serena is reciting to herself tonight. For by the end of their match on Court Philippe Chatrier, it certainly looked as if some agency other than themselves was guiding the hands of the players. Perhaps fate came back to console Razzano with a gift she would not have been able to appreciate nearly as much had she been awarded it a year ago, when her big wound was still so fresh.
Some of what went on was almost outlandish. Razzano appeared to be cramping badly late in the match, but (to her good fortune) in small, sharp bursts, none of which threatened to lead to her disqualification. So she went on. In that epic final game, Razzano survived 12 deuces—and the unnerving experience of having seven match points shoved right back down her throat. You know, the kind of thing that Serena does so well (at least on the rare occasion when that talent has been called upon). Still, Razzano went on.
If you can divest yourself of allegiance to either player, you may agree that this was just one of those matches. One of the ones that seem to proceed in a way that is at the same time incredible and inevitable. These matches are truly rare, and they tend to lift tennis out of the realm of sports and into the sphere of great drama. For who would suggest that this match really was about Serena missing those service returns in the match game, or even Razzano gritting her teeth time and again, as the most able competitor in women's tennis assaulted the confidence that is such a perishable quality in players of Razzano's class?
There seemed to be something else going on. Don't look at me to tell you what it was.
What I'm pretty certain of, though, is that it all began when Serena failed to win the second-set tiebreaker from a 5-1 lead, or with two serves coming and holding a 5-2 advantage. Once Razzano escaped that dilemma, the match took on a life of its own, becoming a different movie from the one either woman might have felt she had been watching, one in which they seemed no more capable of altering the outcome than a moviegoer can change the end of a film by standing up in the theater and shouting advice to the protagonist.
And it was almost eerie how, right in the gut of the tiebreaker, Eva Asderaki—the chair umpire who was at the heart of the hindrance controversy involving Serena in last year's U.S. Open final—was obliged to become a prime player in the drama. She was called upon to check a mark or overrule three times between the time the tiebreaker score went from 5-2 to 5-4. Serena kept Asderaki busy, and you could almost sense a hint of discomfort when they addressed each other. But Asderaki appeared to make the correct as well as fair decision each time.
Very little of that seemed to make much difference as far as Razzano went; she was off somewhere else, projecting the kind of assurance and aplomb that is visited upon players who find themselves in her shoes. It was as if she was being given a chance to know what it is like not to be herself, but a player who would not be denied. There is no such player, of course, just a number of them—including Serena—who come a whole lot closer to being that on a day-to-day basis than does someone like Razzano.
What I found sharply ironic in this match was that for almost the entire first two sets, I was in deep appreciation of Serena's talents and abilities. Commentator and former No. 1 Lindsay Davenport informed us that a Nike seamstress divulged that, since the Australian Open, she's had to take in Serena's tennis dresses by a full inch-and-a-half. Apart from wondering if she will get fired for revealing what might be classified as one of those deep secrets women keep to themselves, the detail confirms that Serena is in great shape these days.
I carefully studied Serena's footwork when she was in full control of the match, and came to the conclusion that she has far better footwork that it may appear, if you just watch her from the knees up. Unlike, say, Marion Bartoli, Serena makes no great show of jumping up and down, doing split-steps, or quick pitter-patter exercises. Everything about her footwork is based on economy and efficiency. I planned to write about that, but I have to confess that it was not in this context.
It was a great day to be Virginie Razzano, and you might say life owed her one of those.