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)

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
The Apprentice candidates Roisin Hogan, Solomon Akhtar, Mark Wright, Bianca Miller, Daniel Lassman
tvReview: But which contestants got the boot?
Arts and Entertainment
Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels ride again in Dumb and Dumber To
filmReview: Dumb And Dumber To was a really stupid idea
News
people

Jo from Northern Ireland was less than impressed by Russell Brand's attempt to stage a publicity stunt

Sport
Scunthorpe goalkeeper Sam Slocombe (left) is congratulated by winning penalty taker Miguel Llera (right)
football
Life and Style
A woman walks by a pandal art installation entitled 'Mars Mission' with the figure of an astronaut during the Durga Puja festival in Calcutta, India
techHow we’ll investigate the existence of, and maybe move in with, our alien neighbours
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Ian McKellen tempts the Cookie Monster
tvSir Ian McKellen joins the Cookie Monster for a lesson on temptation
News
i100
Travel
Tourists bask in the sun beneath the skyscrapers of Dubai
travelBritish embassy uses social media campaign to issue travel advice for festive holiday-makers in UAE
Arts and Entertainment
Jennifer Saunders stars as Miss Windsor, Dennis's hysterical French teacher
filmJennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress
Life and Style
tech
Sport
Nabil Bentaleb (centre) celebrates putting Tottenham ahead
footballTottenham 4 Newcastle 0: Spurs fans dreaming of Wembley final after dominant win
Life and Style
Sebastian Siemiatkowski is the 33-year-old co-founder and CEO of Klarna, which provides a simple way for people to buy things online
tech
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

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

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
10 best high-end laptops

10 best high-end laptops

From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

Homeless Veterans campaign

Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

Meet Racton Man

Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

Garden Bridge

St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

Joint Enterprise

The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

Freud and Eros

Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum