Serena Williams: I was the runt, but tough upbringing made me the world-beater I am now

The American beat Maria Sharapova in the French Open final

Hours after overpowering Maria Sharapova in the French Open final on Saturday, Serena Williams recalled a very different time. She remembered her childhood days back in Compton, the crime-ridden neighbourhood to the south of Los Angeles where she had learnt her tennis on public courts littered with drug addicts' syringes to the background noise of gunfire from drive-by shootings. The youngest of five sisters, Williams had to fight for herself in those days, even on the court.

As she recently told her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, it was that upbringing which forged not only her competitive spirit but also her ingenuity on the court. The focus can often be on Williams' serve and ball-striking power, but what impressed most about her 6-4, 6-4 victory over Sharapova was the variety in her game. The Russian, pummelling the ball from the baseline, was made to look one-dimensional as Williams brought together athleticism, power and artistry to claim her first title in Paris since she beat her sister Venus in the final 11 years ago.

"I was talking to my mum about this, with Patrick, because he said I had unbelievable hands," Williams said. "I was like: 'Well, I have great hands, I have great drop shots and angles and slices.' He never knew. I said: 'It was because when I was younger, I was so small. I was like the runt. I didn't have power, so I had to learn how to play other ways.'

"I think that also taught me how to be mentally tough because Venus used to win her matches really fast and I would be out there grinding, hitting lobs and fighting and grinding and grinding. In the end I think that really developed me as a player, to learn how to win. Then when I did get bigger and stronger, it just helped me to win more easily.

"The reason I've won Grand Slams is because I've wanted it so bad. There were moments when I maybe wasn't the fittest but I wanted it more than anyone else in the tournament. So I think it's fair to say that throughout my whole career at different stages I've really wanted it more than any other human being on the planet."

Already the oldest player in history to hold the world No 1 ranking, 31-year-old Williams is now the oldest woman in the Open era to win at Roland Garros, yet she says she has never felt fitter or more motivated. Her current unbeaten run of 31 matches is the longest of her career. Since going out in the first round here last year she has lost just three times, winning 11 of the 14 tournaments she has played. This was her 16th Grand Slam title, which puts her fourth on the all-time list, behind Steffi Graf (22), Martina Navratilova (18) and Chris Evert (18). The records of Navratilova and Evert are clearly within reach, though Williams insisted that she continues to take one tournament at a time.

"When I had 15 Grand Slam titles I said it was so close, yet it's still so far," she said. "Now I have 16 and I'm closer to 18 but still it's so far, because who knows when I'm going to win another two? That's a lot. It's not easy. I think the competition's getting really tough and every one I win, I'm just learning to really savour that moment. Who knows what will happen? I live for the moment."

Did Williams ever think about her place in history? "No. Because I think if I did, I would retire. I would be like: 'I've done enough. Why am I playing? Do I really need another title?' For me it's just about not thinking about that at all and just playing. I know that I'm good at one thing in life. I might not be good at anything else, but I am good at playing tennis – and I'm going to keep doing it."

Mouratoglou believes overhauling Graf's record is quite possible. "I think for Serena nothing is out of reach – if she wants something it's very difficult to stop her," he said. "Since she keeps this motivation for the game, she is able to win many more [Grand Slam titles], for sure. Physically, I think she's even better than those last years because she's really well prepared, because she's so motivated. So I think she is able to, but you have to go step by step."

The next challenge for Williams is Wimbledon, which begins in a fortnight's time. She returns to the United States today but plans to be back on the practice court tomorrow, although she will not play on grass until she arrives at the All England Club next week. "I'm going to get started straight away because I feel like I have a title to defend," she said. "I want to win that title again. I want to break some more records."

Having claimed her fifth Wimbledon crown last year in the immediate aftermath of her earliest exit from a Grand Slam tournament, Williams will be the strongest of favourites to win again.

"Last year I was really frayed," she recalled. "The brain was fried and I was thinking: 'Gosh, the last match I played I lost.' So this year will be different, though I'm not going in overconfident because anything can happen. I could play a great player, or a player who plays great on that day. I won't be overconfident, but I won't be underconfident either. I'll just find a balance in between."

High court women's slam list

* Serena Williams' second French Open title moved the American on to 16 Grand Slam victories in the Open era, fourth in the all-time list and six behind leader Steffi Graf.

22 S Graf (Ger; right) 18 C Evert (US), M Navratilova (US) 16 S Williams (US) 9 M Seles (Yug/US) 8 B J King (US) 7 E Goolagong (Aus), J Henin (Bel), V Williams (US) 4 K Clijsters (Bel), H Mandlikova (Cz Rep), A S Vicario (Sp), M Sharapova (Rus)

3 J Capriati (US), L Davenport (US), V Wade (GB)

Arts & Entertainment
The Honesty Policy is a group of anonymous Muslims who believe that the community needs a space to express itself without shame or judgement
music
News
Waitrose will be bringing in more manned tills
newsOverheard in Waitrose: documenting the chatter in 'Britain's poshest supermarket'
Life & Style
life
Arts & Entertainment
Back in the suit: There are only so many variations you can spin on the lives or adventures of Peter Parker
filmReview: Almost every sequence and set-up in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 seems familiar from some earlier superhero film
VIDEO
Arts & Entertainment
Jack Gleeson as Joffrey Baratheon in Game of Thrones
tv
Life & Style
Father and son: Michael Williams with son Edmund
lifeAs his son’s bar mitzvah approaches, CofE-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys he’s experienced in learning about his family’s other faith
Arts & Entertainment
Ian Anderson, the leader of British rock band Jethro Tull, (right) and British guitar player Martin Barre (left) perform on stage
musicJethro Tull frontman leads ‘prog rock’ revival
Sport
Gareth Bale dribbled from inside his own half and finished calmly late in the final to hand Real a 2-1 win at the Mestalla in Valencia
sport
Arts & Entertainment
Who laughs lass: Jenny Collier on stage
comedy... writes Jenny Collier, the comedian whose recent show was cancelled because there were 'too many women' on the bill
News
House proud: keeping up with the Joneses now extends to children's playhouses
newsLuxury playhouses now on the market for as much as £800
News
news
Life & Style
Stir it up: the writer gets a lichen masterclass from executive chef Vivek Singh of the Cinnamon restaurants
food + drinkLichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines
Extras
indybest
Arts & Entertainment
Ken Loach (left) and Mike Leigh who will be going head to head for one of cinema's most coveted prizes at this year's Cannes Film Festival
filmKen Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
News
The academic, Annamaria Testa, has set out on her website a list of 300 English words that she says Italians ought to stop using
newsAcademic speaks out against 'Italianglo' - the use of English words in Italian language
Caption competition
Caption competition
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

Cannes Film Festival

Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

The concept album makes surprise top ten return

Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
10 best baking books

10 best baking books

Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

Jury still out on Pellegrini

Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

Mad Men returns for a final fling

The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit