Serena wins Rome, as the 2016 season swiftly shifts again

Serena wins.

Yes, she does… a lot.

Yet, Sunday’s championship in Rome — won against Madison Keys in a classic veteran-steals-the-cookies-from-the-young-challenger kind of match — was Serena’s first title since the summer of 2015. It had been a long time since Serena hoisted a trophy… which is an utterly odd thing to say in light of the overwhelming dominance which marked so much of Serena’s 2015 season.

Yet, if you know Serena’s history, this is simultaneously not an odd thing to note at all.

Serena has endured two periods of at least one year between singles titles, three of at least 11 months in duration. A handful of other singles championship droughts have lasted anywhere from five to nine months, with the five-month droughts not including the offseason months, but in-season months.

Serena is also the player who skipped Indian Wells for over a decade, but regularly managed to win in Miami after comparatively little match play in late winter. She has constantly found ways to shake off periods of inactivity and reclaim prestige and prominence.

Serena wins. It’s what she does, even — and especially — after layoffs.

What’s special about this Roman conquest for the 21-time major champion is that it has positioned her (re-positioned, perhaps?) as the clear favorite to win number 22 in Paris at Stade Roland Garros.

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Angelique Kerber, Australian Open champion.

Simona Halep, Madrid champion.

Victoria Azarenka, Indian Wells and Miami champion.

The foremost stars of the tennis season — eclipsing Serena either at the majors or the most lucrative tournaments to date — have all, at one point or another, appeared to be the leading lights on the WTA tour in 2016. (Yes, Halep exists on a lower plane compared to Kerber and Azarenka, but it was at least understandable to think she had turned a corner in Madrid.)

Yet, Kerber has not maintained what she established so “concretely” on the hardcourts of Australia and Florida, and on the indoor clay of Stuttgart. This hardly means she should be written off in Paris, only that she has once again become a relatively enigmatic player.

Halep’s Madrid run is harder to view as an indicator of sustained prosperity in light of her early crash-out in Rome. It’s true that winning a first match after going the distance the week before is not an easy thing to do. With that point in mind, Halep’s place in women’s tennis shouldn’t be downgraded that much by her Rome loss. Nevertheless, the past week in Italy reinforced the larger pattern of Halep’s career after her march to the 2014 Wimbledon semifinals. The Romanian’s journey has acquired a stop-and-start quality, something different from the steady forward procession which marked the first seven months of her 2014 season.

As for Azarenka, it’s not a matter of tennis, but bad fortune related to her health. The ankle injuries of previous years have become back problems in 2016. Just when Azarenka’s tennis had attained a top-three level — just when this formidably skilled performer had regained her winning edge — her body stopped cooperating.

A month — or even two weeks — ago, who would have thought Serena Williams would clearly stand at the head of the list among Roland Garros favorites? The idea of Serena being squarely in the mix was surely commonplace, but an undisputed favorite?

Keep this point in mind: Serena’s stock hadn’t fallen (albeit only slightly, and not severely) because she had taken time off. As established above (and throughout her career), Serena can respond to a prolonged period of downtime with crispness and competitive clarity, just as she did in Rome. No, the reason why Serena no longer seemed to be a clear top choice in paris — before she came to Italy — was that other WTA stars had wrested the spotlight away from her.

Azarenka won the Indian Wells-Miami double. Kerber, though still marked by a penchant for erratic play, is clearly a superior player when compared to past iterations. When she achieves, she achieves at a greater height compared to 2014 and 2015. Halep — though not deserving to be seen on the same plane as Azarenka and Kerber at the moment — resurfaces often enough (2015 U.S. Open, 2016 Madrid) that she’s still among the top tier of contenders at Roland Garros (just at the bottom of that top tier).

Other women had reasons to view themselves as the foremost threats to win the 2016 French Open. After Rome and before the draw in Paris, however, there’s only one woman who should be seen as the player to beat in France.

Serena wins… the benefit of the doubt.

About Matt Zemek

Matt Zemek is the managing editor of The Student Section, covering college football and basketball with associate editors Terry Johnson and Bart Doan. Mr. Zemek is the editor of Crossover Chronicles, covering the NBA. He is also Bloguin's lead tennis writer, covering the major tournaments. He contributes to other Bloguin sites, such as The AP Party.

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