Things looked dire for a set, but like she’s done so many times, Serena Williams raised her level when it mattered most. In the end, the American defeated Vitalia Diatchenko in the first round of the French Open, 2-6, 6-1, 6-0.
It was the milestone 800th tour-level win of her career.
"The past week and a half has been really good and it was like, this isn't the Serena I have been practicing with or that I see every day," said Williams. "I just let out this roar and here I am. Maybe that helped."
Serena had just one clay-court match under her belt coming into Roland Garros this year, having pulled out of her Italian Open second-round match against her sister Venus due to a knee injury, the same injury that forced her to withdraw from the Miami Open.
And there may have been some rust to shake off early on in the match—Diatchenko was playing fearlessly, keeping Serena on her back foot with her powerful two-fisted groundstrokes. But Serena also hit almost three times as many unforced errors as winners in the first set, 14 to five.
As soon as that opening set was over, though, Serena took it to a whole new level, jumping out to a 3-0 lead in the second set—and after Diatchenko held serve to close the gap to 3-1, Serena reeled off another nine games in a row to run away with the match, even serving it out at love.
The 23-time Grand Slam champion hit 15 winners to just eight unforced errors in the last two sets.
"You know, I was just making so many errors. Every shot I hit, I felt like I was hitting on my frame. I usually don't hit balls on my frame," Williams said. "I was just off, basically. And then instead of correcting it, I just kept getting worse, just to be honest.
"I knew it couldn't get worse, and I knew I could only go up. That's what I told myself. I just gotta keep positive. Yeah, it was just a strange start to that match, for me."
Another takeaway from the contest was Serena's wardrobe, an outfit that includes a warm-up jacket with the four French words: Queen, Champion, Mom and Goddess.
"Those are things that mean a lot to me and reminders for me and for everyone that, you know, that wants to wear it," said Serena. "Just remind everyone that they, you know, can be champions and are queens. So I love that about it."
Asked about the fourth word—"Déesse," or goddess—Serena confirmed the translation. "That's a lot to carry, isn't it?" she was asked by a journalist.
"Yeah. It is a lot to carry," she said, "but so is being Serena Williams."
The former No. 1 is bidding to win her 24th Grand Slam title, which would see her tie Margaret Court's all-time record. In 2017, Serena won her 23rd major at the Australian Open to surpass Steffi Graf for the Open Era record. She was around eight weeks pregnant at the time.
Since returning from maternity leave in 2018, Williams has contested two Grand Slam finals at Wimbledon and the US Open, losing to Angelique Kerber and Naomi Osaka, respectively. In January, she lost to Karolina Pliskova in the Australian Open quarterfinals, blowing a 5-1 lead in the third.
Serena is now the fifth player in WTA history to reach 800 tour-level wins in their career, after fellow legends Martina Navratilova (1442), Chris Evert (1309), Steffi Graf (902) and Virginia Wade (839).
She also improved to 70-1 in her career in first-round matches at Grand Slams, the only loss still her 4-6, 7-6 (5), 6-3 defeat against Frenchwoman Virginie Razzano at Roland Garros in 2012.
Next up for Serena will be either Slovenian Dalila Jakupovic or Japanese qualifier Kurumi Nara, whose match was suspended due to darkness at one set apiece on Monday night, 5-7, 7-5. Serena has never played either Jakupovic or Nara.