Until Tuesday at the French Open. Until Williams came within two points of victory nine times, yet remarkably failed to close the deal against unheralded and 111th-ranked Virginie Razzano of France.
Until a theatrical, 23-minute final game filled with 30 points, more than enough for an entire set, featuring ebbs and flows, high-pressure shotmaking and nerves — and even thunderous protests from the crowd when the chair umpire docked Razzano a point. That look-away-and-you-miss-something game included five wasted break points for Williams, and seven match points that she saved, until Razzano finally converted her eighth, 3 hours and 3 minutes after they began playing.
All told, until Tuesday, Williams was 46 for 46 in openers at tennis' top venues, and those encounters tended to be routine and drama-free, befitting a woman so good that the goal — and 13 times, the end result — was a major championship.
Not this time. Now Williams' first-round Grand Slam record is 46-1 after as stunning a denouement as could be in a 4-6, 7-6 (5), 6-3 loss to Razzano on the red clay at Roland Garros.
The fifth-seeded Williams, considered by many a pre-tournament favourite, led 5-1 in the second-set tiebreaker, before dropping the next 13 points in a row. Suddenly, her shots didn't always carry their usual oomph; her court coverage was ordinary.
"I've been through so much in my life, and ... I'm not happy, by no means," said Williams, her eyes welling with tears. "I just always think things can be worse."
The 30-year-old American returned to action last year after missing about 10 months because of a series of health scares, including two foot operations and blood clots, a scary stretch she says altered her world view.
The rowdy spectators in Court Philippe Chatrier would have been pulling for Razzano anyway, of course, because of her citizenship. But their support was particularly strong because of her recent heartbreak, well-known in France: Razzano's fiance — Stephane Vidal, also her longtime coach — died at age 32 of a brain tumour in May 2011, a little more than a week before her first-round match at last year's French Open.
He had encouraged her to go ahead and enter the tournament, so she did, honouring his memory by stepping on court to play, a black ribbon pinned to her shirt. When she walked out of the locker room for what turned out to be a straight-set loss, she wore a gold chain that Vidal had given her as a Valentine's Day gift a few years earlier.
"Honestly, the past is the past," Razzano said Tuesday, when she dealt with leg cramps starting in the second set. "I think now I did my mourning. I feel good today. It took time."
Said Williams: "I know of her story and her husband. We all have stories. I mean, I almost died, and Venus is struggling herself. So, you know, it's life. You know, it just depends on how you deal with it. She obviously is dealing with it really well."
Williams' exit was by far the most newsworthy development on Day 3 at Roland Garros, where Maria Sharapova won 6-0, 6-0, and Rafael Nadal began his bid for a record seventh French Open championship with a straight-set victory.
Williams entered Tuesday having won her previous 17 matches, all on clay. She withdrew before what would have been her most recent match, a semifinal at the Italian Open on May 19, citing a bad lower back, but said on Friday she was better, then refused to place blame on that injury after being beaten by Razzano.
"No, no, no. I didn't feel anything abnormal," said Williams, who counts the 2002 French Open among her 13 Grand Slam singles trophies. "I was 100 per cent healthy."
Occasionally after losing points, Williams would bend forward and lean on her racket frame, as though perhaps stretching her lower back. She also clutched at that spot and whacked her racket there after miscues.
And there were plenty of those, 47 in all, 11 more than her foe. That's where Williams put the emphasis when trying to fathom how she let her big lead slip away. From 5-1 in the tiebreaker, she lost the next six points to end that set, then the first seven points of the third.
"I tried. I kept going for my shots, which always works for me," Williams said. "It didn't work out today."
It sure seemed she'd be OK when up 5-4 in the second set and at 15-30 on Razzano's serve. The match was about 1 1/2 hours old — only halfway through, it would turn out — and Williams was two points from ending it. Razzano responded with an ace. At 6-5 in that set, Razzano showed real jitters, double-faulting twice in a row to again make it 15-30. Again, Williams was two points away. And again, Razzano held serve to extend the match.
Then came the tiebreaker, with Williams apparently in control. At 5-2, Razzano hit a shot near the baseline that Williams let go, thinking it was out. But the chair umpire, Eva Asderaki, ruled the ball was in. Asderaki overruled a call on the next point, too, helping Razzano.
Asderaki would play a key role, first warning Razzano for hindrance, then twice awarding a point to Williams because the Frenchwoman grunted loudly while exerting herself during extended exchanges. Williams found the whole thing sort of bemusing: Asderaki was the chair umpire who immediately — with no warning — took a point away from Williams during her loss to Sam Stosur in September's U.S. Open final.
"Well, you know, she's not a favourite amongst the tour," Williams said. "I just really had a flashback there."
A surging Razzano led 5-0 in the third set, but Williams — as gritty a competitor as there is in her sport — didn't go quietly. She got within 5-3, and that's when the epic game came, as much a test of will as anything.
Razzano, looking gassed, grabbed at her legs between points and double-faulted to make it 30-all. A 13-stroke point followed, and Asderaki interrupted play to make it 30-40 because of hindrance. The partisan fans jeered, whistled and banged their palms against the stadium's plastic green seats (they booed Asderaki when she walked off at match's end).
That set up Williams' first break point, but she sent a return wide. Moments later, Razzano had her first match point but — gulp! — double-faulted. That established a pattern.
Eventually, on the 12th deuce of the game, Williams dropped a forehand into the net. And on match point No. 8, she sailed a backhand long.
That was it. Razzano skipped to the net for a handshake, thrilled to have beaten Williams — and to have avoided what would have been her 21st first-round departure in 47 major tournaments.
Williams' shoulders slumped. For the first time in a Grand Slam career that began at the 1998 Australian Open, when she was 16, Williams heads home after only one match.
And this was one she had in her grasp.
"I never really feel anything slipping away or anything," Williams said. "I just felt I couldn't get a ball in play."