Venus Williams went into yesterday's Madrid Open final hoping to mark her return to No 2 in the world rankings in winning fashion but instead it was Aravane Rezai who celebrated the biggest victory of her career.
Rezai, a 23-year-old Frenchwoman of Iranian descent, beat Williams 6-2, 7-5 to complete a remarkable week's work, having knocked out Justine Henin and Jelena Jankovic in earlier rounds. The world No 24 took her game to Williams with an assurance that belied her lack of experience.
After breaking serve in the third game, Rezai won the first set in emphatic fashion, having broken again to lead 5-2. In the second she held firm as Williams came back strongly. However the American failed to serve out for the set at 5-3 and scorned more opportunities in the next game, failing to convert six set points.
Williams dropped serve again two games later and Rezai, who lost only one set in the whole week, served out for victory, capitalising on her first match point after an hour and 41 minutes when Williams put a forehand long.
"It's been the best week of my career," Rezai said afterwards. "I played very well and I'm very proud of myself, because it was a very tough tournament. I just believed in myself."
Williams said she had felt short of energy. "I felt a little slower than normal, but I tried hard and I feel very good about my game," she said. "Sometimes you run into a player who's red hot. They hit every shot, they don't miss – and credit to them."
Rezai was born in St Etienne into an Iranian family. Her father was a car mechanic and her mother, who now travels around the world with her, a physiotherapist. She broke into the world's top 100 in 2006, but her progress thereafter was steady rather than spectacular. She did not win her first title on the main Sony Ericsson tour until last May, but went on to win again in Bali at the end of the season.
The turning point in Rezai's career was the appointment of Patrick Mouratoglou as her coach. Mouratoglou runs an academy just outside Paris where past graduates include Marcos Baghdatis, Mario Ancic and Paul-Henri Mathieu. Yanina Wickmayer, Sorana Cirstea and Britain's Laura Robson are among those who currently train there.
Although Rezai has never gone beyond the fourth round of a Grand Slam tournament, her emergence is sure to create plenty of local interest at the French Open, which starts in six days' time. The retirements of Amélie Mauresmo and Nathalie Dechy, combined with Alize Cornet's struggles to live up to her early promise, have left French women's tennis looking unusually thin. Marion Bartoli, the world No 15, is the highest ranked Frenchwoman, with Virginie Razzano (No 47) the country's only other player in the top 50.
The field for Paris could hardly be more open, particularly as the last three major clay-court events in Europe have been won by unseeded players, Henin winning in Stuttgart, Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez in Rome and now Rezai in Madrid. Several of the current top 10 have been out of form of late, which will particularly encourage Henin, who will be playing at Roland Garros for the first time since 2007, when she won her fourth French Open title.
Williams, too, might fancy her chances, even if not usually at her best on clay. She reached the French Open final in 2002, losing to her sister Serena, but has failed to go beyond the quarter-finals in seven appearances since.
It is now nearly two years since Williams won a Grand Slam title, which makes her return to No 2 in the rankings – the first time Serena and Venus have occupied the top two places for seven years – all the more creditable.
The sisters, who won the doubles title in Madrid, have been criticised in the past for paying too little attention to tour events away from the Grand Slam tournaments, but Venus in particular has built her rankings position with a series of consistent performances. This was her fourth appearance in a final this year and the 70th of her career.
Roger Federer was playing Rafael Nadal in last night's men's final, their first meeting since the Swiss beat the Spaniard in the same final a year ago.