PARIS — Done with a dominating performance in the French Open semifinals, Serena Williams climbed the stairs leading from the locker room to the players’ lounge, looking to give her mother a hug.
Smiling widely all the while, Williams greeted visitors, posed for photos and signed autographs on her way.
It’s been more than a decade since she was so happy – and played so well – this deep in the tournament at Roland Garros.
Coming as close to perfect as seems possible, Williams absolutely overwhelmed last year’s runner-up, fifth-seeded Sara Errani of Italy, 6-0, 6-1 in a mere 46 minutes Thursday to reach the final for the first time since winning her lone French Open championship in 2002.
“It doesn’t seem like that long ago,” Williams said, “even though it was.”
To collect her 16th Grand Slam title Saturday, Williams will need to beat defending champion Maria Sharapova, who put aside 11 double-faults and got past third-seeded Victoria Azarenka 6-1, 2-6, 6-4 in a much more competitive semifinal.
The final features the top two women in the rankings and seedings, No. 1 Williams and No. 2 Sharapova. They are 1-2 among active players in French Open match wins, Williams with 45, Sharapova with 43. And they are two of three active women with more than two major championships; Sharapova completed a career Grand Slam in Paris last year with No. 4.
Despite all of that, this one doesn’t shape up as much of an even matchup, because Williams is 13-2 against Sharapova, including winning the last 12.
“Well, I’d be lying if it doesn’t bother me, obviously,” said Sharapova, who last defeated Williams all the way back in 2004, at Wimbledon and the WTA Championships. “Whatever I did in the past hasn’t worked, so I’ll have to try to do something different.”
Williams never gave Errani a chance to switch things up.
Errani, Williams’ coach Patrick Moratouglou explained, “needs to rally, she needs to run, and then she’s really, really dangerous.” But, he continued, Williams “decided to refuse to let her play.”
Simple as that.
The 31-year-old American won the first nine games. When Errani finally got on the board, 37 minutes in, she raised both arms overhead as the crowd roared.
Williams accumulated a 40-2 discrepancy in winners <0x2014> yes, 40-2! <0x2014> showing off a full array of talents. She won 28 of 33 points she served, helped by five aces, including one at 123 mph (199 kph). She smacked 10 return winners. She mixed in overhead smashes, powerful groundstrokes, even a drop shot.
“She was playing,” Williams’ mother, Oracene Price, summed up, “like Serena of old.”
It felt like a routine first-round match for one of the sport’s greats against a qualifier or wild-card recipient ranked somewhere in the 200s, not someone ranked No. 5 and a semifinalist at three of the past five major tournaments. Errani’s also an accomplished doubles player, having won three of the past four Grand Slam titles in that event.
“I really believed I had a chance and I was trying to fight,” said Errani, now 0-6 against Williams. “Maybe on the outside, people will think that’s not true. But I know that I tried, right until the end.”
Made no difference. Moratouglou thought one reason Williams was so terrific was what happened Tuesday in the quarterfinals, when she was pushed to three sets by 2009 French Open champion Svetlana Kuznetsova after having lost a total of 10 games through four rounds.
“It was good for her to feel danger for a moment,” Moratouglou said.
Sharapova certainly dealt with plenty of tension against Azarenka, the winner of the past two Australian Opens.
Good as she was in the first set, Sharapova was shaky in the second, and it took her a while to straighten things out after a 35-minute rain delay that preceded the third. Up an early break, Sharapova double-faulted four times in a single game to make it 2-all. Serving for the match the first time, at 5-2, she let four match points slip away, then double-faulted on the last two points.
Finally, at 5-4, she steeled herself, serving out the victory at love, punctuated by her 12th ace.
“I did the job,” Sharapova said. “I just hope that I can improve for the next one.”
Probably needs to, the way Williams is hitting the ball.
While Williams has won five titles at Wimbledon and the Australian Open, and four at the U.S. Open, the slow red clay of the French Open has given her trouble through the years. It slows up her big serves and big groundstrokes enough to aid opponents. The footwork is also more difficult than on other surfaces.
After beating her sister Venus in the 2002 final, then making it to the semifinals a year later, Williams went through a drought in Paris. Four times, she lost in the quarterfinals. Once, in the third round. A year ago, she lost in the first round to a woman ranked outside the top 100, Williams’ only exit at that stage in 51 career major tournaments.
“She was so mad,” her mother said Thursday.
Following that setback, Williams stuck around Paris - she owns an apartment in the city, and she’s been wowing the locals these two weeks by conducting on-court interviews in their language - and practiced at Moratoughlou’s tennis academy in France.
In the last 12 months, Williams is 73-3, including titles at Wimbledon, the U.S. Open and the London Olympics, playing as well as she did back when she pulled off her self-styled “Serena Slam” in 2002-03 by earning trophies at all four major tournaments in a row.
“I’m still here,” Williams told the crowd in French, “11 years later.”