Serena closing in on more greats

PARIS -- More than two hours before her first French Open final in 11 years, Serena Williams was out on Court Philippe Chatrier crushing balls with hitting partner Sascha Bajin. She seemed almost as bored as the ushers, focused more on adjusting her huge ponytail than on any of those gorgeous, grooved groundstrokes. Still, she thrashed Sascha as her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, stood behind her with arms crossed and nodded his head.

Serena, at the advanced age of 31, has embraced all things French -- including, it has been suggested in media reports, her coach -- and all that karma came back to her on Saturday. She completed the long, one-year mission that began with a horrifying loss here in the first round to Frenchwoman Virginie Razzano.

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Amazingly, Serena Williams is now only two Slam wins from catching Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert.

Most of the 106-minute match was a calm, almost stately affair, but in the last game Serena absolutely dropped the hammer on defending champion Maria Sharapova. She knocked down three aces, which grew successively faster at 118 mph, 121 and, on match point, a smoking 128 -- the fastest ever recorded by a woman at Roland Garros and the third-fastest on record anywhere. Venus and Serena are Nos. 1 and 2 in that category.

The final was 6-4, 6-4.

Afterward, she told the appreciative crowd, "Je suis incroyable!"

She seemed to be going for something like "It's incredible," but the actual translation was closer to the truth:

"I am incredible."

Fortunately, Serena's forehand is (way) better than her French.

Williams' emotional reaction after that last ace underlined what this truly meant to her. She hit the dirt, put her face in her hands, even danced a bit.

"I think losing in the first round definitely helped me realize I have no points to defend," Serena said later. "I have nothing to lose. I can just kind of relax and just do what I want to do here."

She did not include Razzano in her on-court thank-you list. But she should have. Her record is 74-3 since she took her eye off the ball 54 weeks ago here in Paris.

Clay is not her best surface (it is actually her worst), but, this spring, Serena has been a revelation playing in the dirt.

Williams has won:

• Thirty-one consecutive matches, the past 25 on clay.

• Three of the past four Grand Slam singles titles.

• Each Grand Slam twice, something achieved by only three other women: Steffi Graf, Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert.

• Sixteen (count them, 16) major singles championships, which means she could catch Navratilova and Evert (18 each) as early as this year's US Open.

Two years ago, when she was in the process of surviving some harrowing health issues that forced her to miss three consecutive majors, none of those things seemed possible. It doesn't get a lot of attention, but Serena, at 31, is the oldest French Open champion in Open era history, which goes back to 1968. She is, by all accounts, playing as well as she ever has, which -- given the sudden decline of Roger Federer, who is the same age -- doesn't make much sense.

Sharapova was asked afterward whether she had any regrets.

"I don't have many regrets in life, actually," she said. "I try not to have any at all. It would be pretty tough to go about life -- whether I'm on the court or away from it -- if I feel like I didn't do enough at a certain moment in my life. You have to move forward.

"Of course, I thought I earned my position to be in the final. I did put up a fight obviously today against her; it was not enough."

In some ways, Serena's career mirrors Andre Agassi's; he didn't always take the game seriously until later in life, and it probably allowed him to stay motivated when many of his rivals (such as Pete Sampras) lost the appetite to compete.

The result, to be frank, was not exactly a surprise.

These two had played 15 times, and Sharapova had won all of … two matches. Williams was 3-0 on clay and, since 2010, had won 16 of their past 17 sets. That said, the match opened with -- if you were looking for a credible contest -- a very pleasant surprise.

Not only did Sharapova overcome a love-40 hole to hold serve -- cracking three, thunderous (and unreturnable) serves -- but she broke Serena's first serve, as well. For a moment or so (Maria led 40-15 on her second serve), it looked as if Serena might be trailing 3-0 before she got her first chance to sit down.

But Williams' biggest forehand in the early going, and a "Come on!" to match, brought her back. An easy overhead got her on the board, and she -- predictably -- broke Sharapova when it started to matter, at 4-all. She served out the first set and, 51 minutes in, it appeared to be over.

Why? In 43 matches here at Roland Garros, Serena has won 41 of them after winning the first set.

Sharapova soldiered on, saving her opening serve of the second set in an impressive 12-minute game, but relentless Williams broke her second service game. Sharapova has the power to match strokes with Serena, but she lacks the ability to move from side to side. Too often, her running forehands and backhands found the net.

And then those three aces came down from Serena. And she had launched herself far above the rest of her game. Next up on the active Grand Slam list? Sister Venus has seven major titles, less than half as many as Serena. Sharapova is third, with four.

How about those serves, Maria?

"Obviously, it's a little bit of confidence," Sharapova said, "but we know she's going to be able to hit a big serve. I mean, I think if I was built like Serena, I hope I'd be able to hit a big serve like that, too."

Serena wasn't so sure about the size thing.

"I'm a lot smaller than Maria, so I don't know how I'm able to serve so big. I think growing up with Venus, she's serving so big, I was like, 'I want to serve big, too.'

"I am not the tallest girl on tour, but I definitely think I use my height in a very effective way, and I use it to the fullest of my ability."

Serena said she was so nervous in the last game that she felt she had no choice but to hit aces.

"I thought, 'I'm not going to be able to hit groundstrokes,'" she said, drawing laughter. "No joke. I really thought -- and, as you see, the one groundstroke I did hit went like 100 feet out.

"I just had to hit aces. That's just what I did."

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