Serena Williams leans forward and reveals, with a mischievous smile, that her favourite French movie is Mama, There’s a Man in Your Bed, a comedy about a mixed race couple living in Paris. “Look it up; it’s very funny,” she says. Whether or not she means this to convey a hint of romance between herself and her French coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, is hard to tell but it is without question a partnership that has transformed her career.
Since she took up with Mouratoglou at his Parisian academy a year ago, after her first-round defeat in the 2012 French Open, she has lost only three times. And when she sank to the clay after beating Maria Sharapova in the French Open final on June 8 she had rounded out perhaps the most satisfying 12 months of her life, content away from the court and renewed with 30-something vigour inside the white lines.
She won Wimbledon for the fifth time, gold at the Olympics a month later, a fourth title at Flushing Meadows and is back at No 1 in the world at 31, the oldest player to lead the field in the open era.
Serena is in one of those periods when she cannot stop smiling; when her name suits her perfectly. If ever a city changed an athlete, surely it is this one. She is the archetypal American in Paris, owns an apartment here, shops with zeal in all the fashionable boutiques and considers it her second home.
“I have always had a wonderful relationship with Paris,” she says. “Incidentally the first tournament I ever won was here. I I feel like I can just live a normal life here. The city is so pretty. You look at the Eiffel Tower and it feels surreal – you see it on TV but now I see it every day. It’s really cool.”
But now it is back to business, back to Palm Beach to rest and get ready for Wimbledon, where she has another goal to keep her going: Roger Federer’s mark of 17 grand slams, one more than her own.
“I thought Roger had 16 but he has 17, so I was like: ‘Honestly Roger, you have to win this much?’ It just keeps me going. It would be cool if I could be even with him and how awesome would it be if I could do it at Wimbledon? But the competition’s really tough. I’m going to have to get really serious about my game and be really focused to ever catch Roger.”
She says it is going to be tough and, like any of the four grand slam tournaments, it will be – but a more detached assessment might be that it will not be anywhere near as big a challenge as it will be for Federer. Williams is so dominant it is difficult to see where her next defeat is going to come from. Sharapova might again lift her game to challenge her on grass, where she won her first major as a 17-year-old in 2004, beating Williams 6-1, 6-4. Perhaps the Polish stylist Agnieszka Radwanska, who took a set off her in last year’s Wimbledon final?
So who can stop Serena? Serena can. If she is not in the mood, if she loses focus, there is a chance she could slip up at some point. But there is no sign of it. All one sees is one long, happy smile, a woman in the prime of her life and at the very height of her calling. If she walked on to court to a George Gershwin soundtrack, it would not be out of place. – © Guardian News & Media 2013