As grey skies fade to blue and the calendar shifts to late May, the tennis world is focusing its collective attention on Paris, as the annual French Open tosses up its first serve.
And for the world’s No. 1 women’s tennis player, this year’s Roland Garros is imbued with a rare theme: redemption.
Used to dominance, Serena Williams doesn’t often enter major tournaments lagging behind a step. Sure, she’s fought the odds before. She’s had “something to prove” since she was in her teens. She’s been doubted and denigrated and pushed around in a way that few other athletes have experienced. But this is something else.
For a spell last year, the (sexist, racist, otherwise offensive) backtalk surrounding Williams had faded to a hum. She was just too good for the naysayers to gain traction. She packed too much power for the cynics to punch back.
September 2015 saw Williams just two matches away from the coveted calendar-year Grand Slam -- and she glimpsed that achievement for just a moment.
Then Italy’s Roberta Vinci shocked Serena in the U.S. Open semifinal, swatting away her historic run. And the Williams we’ve seen since has been a Williams with a limp. Suffering from an “injured … heart” after September’s shocker, she soon fell again in January’s Australian Open. It was a quieter fall -- an upset that meant less for the history books, and so resonated less with the public. But it was a sign that all was still not well within the Williams universe -- mentally, physically or both -- as she struggled to regain her pre-Vinci verve.
But that, at least according to Williams, is all in the past.
"You do want to play the No. 1 -- you do want to beat them," Williams said to CNN of her future opponents’ mindsets. "I know I did -- but I am ready for that. I am ready for anyone every time."
That’s a sentiment reminiscent of pre-September Serena. A sentiment brimming with confidence and assurance in what she is capable of, one that both acknowledges and outright dismisses her competition. After all, what can they do when faced the strength of her serve? Not much. And Serena knows it.
Williams’ victory in France would be one for the record books. She would match the great Steffi Graf for most Grand Slam singles titles ever at 22 -- a feat that’d serve as a nice shot of adrenaline just weeks before Wimbledon.
Williams insisted to CNN that she “love[s] the clay” surface she’ll be competing on in the coming days -- and she’s acted like it as of late, winning two of the last three French Open titles.
And while it’s, of course, impossible to know which Williams -- limping or legendary -- will take the court at Roland Garros, if you look beyond the metrics and the most recent stat lines, there is something else (something, albeit, less concrete) that seems to indicate a shift in her mentality.
In France, she’ll once again compete in doubles with her sister, Venus. The thing is, neither woman needs to take on double -- and doubles -- duty to cement or add to her individual success story. Both have had such outrageous success on the court that anything they’d gain from yet another grand slam doubles title -- while nice, sure -- is not nearly life- or legacy-changing for either woman, even if they do hope to play together in Rio this August.
So what the decision seems to come down to for Serena, at least in part, is a return to the basics. After a roller-coaster year that featured historic highs and gut-punching lows, a family reunion speaks to her returning home -- to the affection she’s had for the sport for decades and her desire to embrace that uncomplicated love for the game.
That’s what seems different about Williams’ words and actions right now. It’s not that she’s regained her do-or-die mentality for every individual match, even though that may very well be the case. It’s that -- maybe -- her passion for the game is once again eclipsing the pressure she must feel whenever she picks up a racket and heads to center court.
No one knows how Williams will serve or stroke or volley in the coming weeks. But from looking at the sentiments behind what she’s saying and what she’s doing, it certainly seems that we’re about to witness a redemption.