Serena Williams will head to Paris for next week's French Open in the form of her life, but the world No 1 will be taking nothing for granted. Williams, who extended her career-best winning streak to 24 matches in Rome on Sunday by beating Victoria Azarenka 6-1, 6-3 to claim her second Italian Open title, remembers how she seemed just as invincible 12 months ago, only to suffer the most extraordinary defeat of her career.
Williams went to the 2012 French Open unbeaten on clay for more than two years, but lost in the first round of a Grand Slam tournament for the first time when she was beaten by Virginie Razzano, the world No 111.
The 31-year-old American admitted that defeat will be on her mind when she returns to Roland Garros this week, if only because journalists keep reminding her of it.
"I don't want it to be there but I'm sure I'll answer more questions about it," she said. "My goal is just to win a match there this year."
Williams, whose first Rome triumph for 11 years gave her the 51st title of her career and her fifth this year, will reflect, however, that she might never have teamed up with her present coach had she not suffered that defeat. It was in the wake of her early exit from the French Open that she went to Patrick Mouratoglou's academy on the outskirts of Paris looking for somewhere to practise.
"I was dealing with some personal stuff and I didn't want to go home," Williams recalled here last week. "I needed a place to train in Paris and I'd known Patrick a little bit, so I asked him if I could train at his academy. I was there strictly to train. I wasn't looking for a coach. I was just looking for a tennis court."
Mouratoglou, who set up his academy in 1996 and counts Marcos Baghdatis, Grigor Dimitrov and Laura Robson among his former charges, recalls that Williams told him: "I want to win Wimbledon."
Williams, who went on to win not only Wimbledon but also the Olympics and US Open in a glorious summer, still lists her parents as her official coaches, but Mouratoglou has become the key figure in her entourage. Her record since she teamed up with the 42-year-old Frenchman is remarkable: with 67 wins and just three defeats, Williams has won 10 of the 13 tournaments in which she has played in the last 12 months. In February she became the oldest player ever to hold the world No 1 ranking, returning to the top spot for the first time since October 2010.
"He's brought a lot of calm to my game," Williams said. "I've obviously had some talent, but I think it's a question of harnessing that talent and moving in the right direction.
"The only other people who were able to do that were my parents. I think Patrick has been able to continue the job that my parents do. So I think it's a good fit coaching-wise. I'm a little intense and I can be a little bit crazy on the court. It's all a balancing act."
Azarenka, who was world No 1 until Williams supplanted her three months ago, had beaten the American in their most recent encounter, halting a run of nine consecutive defeats, but normal business resumed yesterday. The 23-year-old from Belarus should nevertheless draw encouragement from her week's work in Rome, having returned recently from injury. The first four games, which took 33 minutes, could hardly have been tighter. Each player had five break points, but Williams converted two and Azarenka one. From that moment the world No 1 took control, although Azarenka held firm early on in the second set.
By the end Williams had struck 41 winners to the 12 of Azarenka, who twice slammed her racket on the floor in frustration, before giving credit to Williams at the end. "She was better at the key moments," the world No 3 said. Some of the American's play was stunning. She hit ground strokes with conviction and built points with a fine mix of power and patience. In five matches here she dropped just 14 games, with Azarenka and Robson, who both won four games apiece, offering the greatest resistance.
Mouratoglou said afterwards that Williams would be back on the practice court as quickly as possible to prepare for the start of the French Open next Sunday. "It's one of the main goals of the year for her," he said. "These are the events where you write tennis history."
Longest winning runs
Longest winning streaks by women in the Open era:
74 Martina Navratilova (run ended Dec 1984)
66 Steffi Graf (run ended May 1990)
58 Navratilova (run ended Jan 1987)
57 Margaret Court (run ended March 1973)
55 Chris Evert (run ended Sept 1974)