PARIS -- For more than a decade, whatever the state of her health or her game, no matter the opponent or arena, Serena Williams always won first-round matches at Grand Slam tournaments.
Until Tuesday at the French Open.
Until Williams came within two points of victory nine times, yet remarkably failed to close the deal against unheralded and 111th-ranked Virginie Razzano of France.
Until a theatrical, 23-minute final game filled with 30 points, more than enough to fill an entire set, featuring ebbs and flows, high-pressure shot-making and nerves -- and even thunderous protests from the crowd when the chair umpire docked Razzano a point. That look-away-and-you-miss-something game included five wasted break points for Williams, and seven match points that she saved, until Razzano finally converted her eighth, 3 hours and 3 minutes after they began playing.
All told, until Tuesday, Williams was 46-for-46 in openers at tennis's top venues, and those encounters tended to be routine and drama-free, befitting a woman so good that the goal -- and 13 times, the end result -- was a major championship.
Not this time. Now Williams' first-round Grand Slam record is 46-1 after as stunning a denouement as could be in a 4-6, 7-6 (5), 6-3 loss to Razzano on the red clay at Roland Garros.
The fifth-seeded Williams, considered by many a pre-tournament favorite, led 5-1 in the second-set tiebreaker, before dropping the next 13 points in a row.
"I've been through so much in my life, and ... I'm not happy, by no means," said Williams, her eyes welling with tears. "I just always think things can be worse."
The 30-year-old American returned to action last year after missing about 10 months because of a series of health scares, including two foot operations and blood clots, a scary stretch she says altered her worldview.
The rowdy spectators in Court Philippe Chatrier chanting Razzano's first name would have been pulling for her anyway, of course, because of her citizenship. But their support was particularly strong because of her recent heartbreak, well-known in France: Razzano's fiancé -- Stephane Vidal, also her longtime coach -- died at age 32 of a brain tumor in May 2011, a little more than a week before her first-round match at last year's French Open.
He had encouraged her to go ahead and enter the tournament, so she did, honoring his memory by stepping on court to play, a black ribbon pinned to her shirt. When she walked out of the locker room for what turned out to be a straight-set loss, she wore a gold chain that Vidal had given her as a Valentine's Day gift a few years earlier.
"Honestly, the past is the past," Razzano said Tuesday. "I think now I did my mourning. I feel good today. It took time."
Said Williams: "I know of her story and her husband. We all have stories. I mean, I almost died, and Venus is struggling herself. So, you know, it's life. You know, it just depends on how you deal with it. She obviously is dealing with it really well."
Williams' exit was by far the most newsworthy development on Day 3 at Roland Garros, where Maria Sharapova won 6-0, 6-0, and Rafael Nadal began his bid for a record seventh French Open championship with a straight-set victory.
Williams entered Tuesday having won her previous 17 matches, all on clay. She withdrew before what would have been her most recent match, a semifinal at the Italian Open on May 19, citing a bad lower back, but said on Friday she was better, then refused to place blame on that injury after being beaten by Razzano.
"No, no, no. I didn't feel anything abnormal," said Williams, who counts the 2002 French Open among her 13 Grand Slam singles trophies. "I was 100 percent healthy."
Occasionally after losing points, Williams would bend forward and lean on her racket frame, as though perhaps stretching her lower back. She also clutched at that spot and whacked her racket there after miscues.
And there were plenty of those, 47 in all, 11 more than her foe. That's where Williams put the emphasis when trying to fathom how she let her big lead slip away, especially after being ahead 5-1 in the second-set tiebreaker. She lost the next six points to end that set, then the first seven points of the third.
"I tried. I kept going for my shots, which always works for me," Williams said. "It didn't work out today."
It sure seemed she'd be OK when up 5-4 in the second set and at 15-30 on Razzano's serve. The match was about 1½ hours old -- only halfway through, it would turn out -- and Williams was two points from ending it. Razzano responded with an ace. At 6-5 in that set, Razzano showed real jitters, double-faulting twice in a row to again make it 15-30. Again, Williams was two points away. And again, Razzano held serve to extend the match.
Then came the tiebreaker, with Williams apparently in control. At 5-2, Razzano hit a shot near the baseline that Williams let go, thinking it was out. But the chair umpire, Eva Asderaki, ruled the ball was in. Asderaki overruled a call on the next point, too, helping Razzano.
Asderaki would play a key role, first warning Razzano for hindrance, then twice awarding a point to Williams because the Frenchwoman grunted loudly while exerting herself during extended exchanges. Williams found the whole thing sort of bemusing: Asderaki was the chair umpire who immediately -- with no warning -- took a point away from Williams during her loss to Sam Stosur in September's U.S. Open final.
"Well, you know, she's not a favorite amongst the tour," Williams said. "I just really had a flashback there."
A surging Razzano led 5-0 in the third set, but Williams -- as gritty a competitor as there is in her sport -- didn't go quietly. She got within 5-3, and that's when the epic game came, as much a test of will as anything.
Razzano, looking gassed, grabbed at her legs between points and double-faulted to make it 30-all. A 13-stroke point followed, and Asderaki interrupted play to make it 30-40 because of hindrance. The partisan fans jeered, whistled and banged their palms against the stadium's plastic green seats.
That set up Williams' first break point, but she sent a return wide. Moments later, Razzano had her first match point but double-faulted. That established a pattern.
Eventually, on the 12th deuce of the game, Williams dropped a forehand into the net. And on match point No. 8, she sailed a backhand long.
That was it. Razzano skipped to the net for a handshake, thrilled to have beaten Williams -- and to have avoided what would have been her 21st first-round departure in 47 major tournaments.
Williams' shoulders slumped. For the first time in a Grand Slam career that began at the 1998 Australian Open, when she was 16, Williams heads home after only one match.
And this was one she had in her grasp.
"I never really feel anything slipping away or anything," Williams said. "I just felt I couldn't get a ball in play."
It was in stark contrast to
Sharapova, who completed her rout of Romania's Alexandra Cadantu in 48 minutes. The second-seeded Russian, who lost in this year's Australian Open final, finished with 18 winners to none for Cadantu but had to save three break points.
"No matter how good or bad they're playing, you still have to win that match," Sharapova said. "It's always about who takes their chances."
Earlier, Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova defeated junior Wimbledon champion Ashleigh Barty 6-1, 6-2. After losing the opening game, Kvitova won six straight in the first set against the 16-year-old Australian wild card and again raced through the second set despite being broken once.
"She has a big serve with kicks and good forehand," Kvitova said. "She has very good touch."
The left-handed Czech won her first Grand Slam title at Wimbledon last year, and then won the WTA Championships. Although she has yet to win a title in 2012, she is seeded fourth in Paris and is expected to go deep into the tournament.
"It was tough out there today," Barty said. "I didn't play my best tennis, but she didn't allow me to. I was out there giving it my all, but unfortunately just didn't come out on top today."
Barty is the youngest player in the draw, one of only eight teenagers entered. The oldest player in the draw, 41-year-old Kimiko Date-Krumm of Japan, lost to 2010 French Open champion Francesca Schiavone of Italy 6-3, 6-1.
Sharapova didn't need to expend much energy Tuesday, but she figures that she's in good enough condition to handle what can be a grueling place to play the seven matches required to earn a Grand Slam title.
Sharapova won Wimbledon in 2004, the U.S. Open in 2006, and the Australian Open in 2008. The best she's done at the French Open, however, was the semifinals twice, in 2007 and last year.
Getting more and more efficient on clay, Sharapova is coming off a second consecutive Italian Open title on the surface last week.
In the past, Sharapova knows full well, a demanding three-set match at Roland Garros might leave her too sapped to be at her best in the following round.
"For the next match, it was just like the balloon popped or something, like ... you could tell my energy level wasn't there [and I] wasn't moving so good," she said. "And that has improved a lot, and helps me mentally, knowing that I don't feel like I'm saving myself so much."
The way Sharapova looks at it, she needed to focus on having better fitness and consistency from point to point, and from match to match -- and she has.
"Over the years, you learn what your body can take, what it can't, what you need, how you recover better, little by little," she explained. "I mean, look, I'm not ever going to be lifting 50-pound weights anytime soon -- or ever -- but it's little things, little muscles, little explosive steps that I feel like I've improved."
The 22-year-old Cadantu has never beaten someone ranked in the top 60, falling to 0-6 in such matches. She's also now 0-2 in Grand Slam matches.
And the Romanian's assessment after seeing Sharapova up close?
"She has a good game," Cadantu said. "She can make it here."
Information from The Associated Press contributed to this report.