Serena Williams continues to defy gravity

PARIS -- This French Open final -- like every other Grand Slam finale involving Serena Williams -- came down to a single factor: Williams.

Would her recent bout with influenza prevent her from playing her best against first-time major finalist Lucie Safarova? Or did it matter? Even when she was out of kilter in Thursday's semifinals, Serena managed to drop a 6-0 anvil on Timea Bacsinszky.

The question seemed answered 13 minutes into Saturday's so-called contest when Serena hit a bomb of a forehand service return, struck so sharply it exited the court inside Safarova's service box.

In a tournament rich in drama there was, weirdly, little, as Serena won 10 of the first 14 games and found herself two games from the match. But then, perhaps inevitably, it descended midway through the second set. Safarova, fiercely game, won four straight games and forced a tiebreaker.

Serena, double-faulting and missing makeable shots, seemed to shrink. And so, for only the second time in 14 years, the French Open had a women's final that was going the distance.

Really? Did you think Serena would lose in that monumental spot?

No. The final was 6-3 6-7 (2), 6-2 and it required 2 hours, 1 minute.

When it was over, after Serena had won her most difficult Grand Slam -- given that degree of difficulty, it might have been her sweetest, too -- she raised her arms as if she had scored a touchdown. And then she let out a huge sigh as she approached Safarova at net.

"It's been a nightmare," Serena said in her post-match news conference.

Was it her most difficult Grand Slam to collect?

"Yeah," she said. "For sure. When you have the flu, your whole body aches.

"I just want to go to bed."

It was, somehow appropriately, the fifth match of seven here for Serena at Roland Garros that went the maximum distance of three sets.

That's 20 Grand Slam singles titles for the 33-year-old, and counting, which leaves her only two behind Steffi Graf and ever closer to Margaret Smith Court's all-time record of 24.

"Number 20," Serena said. "I haven't really had a lot of time to take it in. I'm excited. I'm still kind of celebrating No. 19. So here I am at 20. It seems a little bit like a dream, like is this really my life? Is this really happening right now?

"I can't believe I won. It's cool."

Here is how dominant Serena is at the moment:

• Going back to last year's US Open, she has won three consecutive majors -- for the first time since 2002-03.

• She faced three different players in those Grand Slam finals -- Caroline Wozniacki, Maria Sharapova in Australia and Safarova -- and her combined career record against them is an astonishing 38-3.

• Serena is now 20-4 in the crucible of Grand Slam finals, 3-0 at Roland Garros.

Consider this: Novak Djokovic is going for his personal Grand Slam on Sunday in the men's final. Serena has three of them. Moreover, her lead in the WTA rankings is an absurd 4,421 points over Petra Kvitova, the equivalent of more than two Grand Slam titles.

Safarova, feeling it, broke Serena to open the third set but gave it back in the fourth game -- with a telling double fault. Sure enough, Serena broke her in the sixth game to take a 4-2 lead. How well were things going for her near the end? At one point, she was off balance on the ad side and hastily switched the racket to her left hand and hit a credible forehand that helped save a point.

"I just couldn't find any weapon that could stop her," Safarova said of Serena's third set. "I was trying to mix up the serve, trying to mix up the rhythm, trying to go for risk shots. But when she was on, she was just serving amazing and going for the returns, pressuring me right away.

"It's just hard to do anything with that."

Serena's dominance comes against the grain of this great game.

For the line of demarcation that separates Grand Slam winners from non-Grand Slam winners is the 29th birthday.

This is the tipping point when muscle memory becomes less muscle and more memory. When getting to the ball is no longer an unconscious act of twitching fibers but, rather, a journey to be contemplated. Experience, too, has a downside: Knowing too much can sometimes cause paralysis.

To some degree, it happens to every elite tennis player. Roger Federer and Pete Sampras won exactly one major after crossing into their 30th year. That Rafael Nadal, the nine-time French Open champion, lost only his second match at Roland Garros on the 29th anniversary of his birth underlines the premise.

Which brings us to Williams, who doesn't conform to these mortal standards. She continues to defy gravity at an age when all the great players before her, both men and women, succumbed to it.

Here are the facts: Serena, who turns 34 in September, has now won seven Grand Slam singles past the age of 29.

To put that in context, the ageless Martina Navratilova won five and Chris Evert and Margaret Smith Court won four each.

According to Evert, an ESPN analyst, Serena is actually getting better with age. She credits her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, with motivating her, keeping her edge for the past three years.

Serena is, Evert wrote in an email, "More committed to tennis and aware of her place in history."

How has she achieved this?

It's a combination of many things, beginning with talent and a fierce desire to win. Clearly, she is blessed with a superior genetic code and an older sister who was an excellent role model. And then there are the valleys she has endured over the years -- a serious knee injury early on; myriad distractions, many of them self-imposed; and another more recent health scare. Over the years, her focus has grown sharper, her sense of urgency greater, and at the age of 33 -- the same as Federer, a father of four -- she is in the midst of another vintage run.

Famously, Serena won four consecutive Grand Slam singles titles in 2002-03 and, ultimately, five of six. From 2008-10, she won five of eight. In 2012-13, she took four of six. Now, after going out in the fourth, second and third rounds of the first three majors a year ago, she has produced a second trifecta.

In her 21st year as a professional, she can do something she's never done: win a single-year Grand Slam. It's not a stretch, given the lack of rivals in women's tennis today. Remember, Serena is a five-time champion at both Wimbledon and the US Open.

"It would be awesome [to win the single-year Slam]," she said. "But, at the end of the day, it's pretty awesome to have 20. I haven't done great at Wimbledon the past two years, so I'm going to take it a day at a time there. That's the one I've been struggling at, so hopefully I will be able to play a little better there."

So can Serena win all four majors this year?

"Well," said Safarova, "she's a great player. She has obviously the experience. She won all those Grand Slams already. I think she can do it. If she's on her best and great shape, she's playing the best tennis."

That she won here, on the surface, is remarkable. Williams came in with an elbow injury and has been serving at far lower speeds than usual. But her placement serves are nearly as fast (or faster) than most of the competition. She has been fighting the flu in recent days and her fitness clearly has been compromised.

It is fitting that she lost the first set in four of her seven matches here and rallied to win. That's the most in any of her major victories. The second most? Her very first Grand Slam singles win, the 1999 US Open as a 17-year-old -- an improbable span of nearly 16 years.

That is a stunning (and magnificent) arc de triomphe.