CBS 5 Sports Director Dennis O’Donnell hosts “Gameday” every Sunday night at 11:30pm on CBS 5 and offers his unique sports analysis here.
(CBS 5) — When I first met Serena Williams, she was 13 years old and serving as a practice opponent for Venus, who was showing off her skills for the media under the watchful eye of their father, Richard. The event, of course, was a marketing campaign aimed at promoting an up-and-coming tennis protégé about to make her debut at the Virginia Slims in Oakland.
But I’ll never forget watching Serena and thinking to myself, “she hits it just as hard as her sister.” And here we are, thirteen Grand Slam titles later and Serena had yet to lose a single first round match at a slam.
Tennis is an amazing sport to watch because it’s mano-a-mano. There are no teammates to hide behind, no lousy defense to blame except your own. Golfers aren’t competing against fellow players, they’re competing against themselves. Baseball, football, basketball? Teammates, period.
A tennis match can be many things. A boring, one-sided mismatch seemingly designed to fill the bracket. Or, it can be something else. It can unfold into a classic composition of Mozart or Beethoven, a slow build to a breathless crescendo of drama and heartbreak.
Such a match happened at the French Open on Tuesday. What happened on the clay at Roland Garros was proof that you don’t have to wait until the hyperbole of a final to see a tennis match worthy of a classic.
Lost in the satellite world of the Tennis Channel, Serena Williams, the French Open favorite, took on unheralded and 111th-ranked Virginie Razzano, who fittingly for the script, is from France. Up to this point, Razzano was, perhaps, known more for the tragedy of losing her fiancé and coach one year earlier. She was certainly a sentimental pick but hardly a sensible one.
Serena had overcome hardship of her own, missing almost a year with foot operations and blood clots.
Serena predictably won the first set, albeit with some difficulty, 6-4. Then came a second hard-fought set, but one that Serena seemed to have well in hand with a 5-1 lead in the tiebreak. The outcome was a formality, or so it seemed.
Then came a baseline shot that Williams let go, thinking it was out. The chair umpire disagreed. And with that decision, the match took on a completely different feel.
The drama elevated. The crowd roared for their countrywoman, and Serena seemed to disappear into a funk that not even her family could watch as TV cameras showed their hand-covered faces.
Razzano led 5-0 in the third set when the sleeping giant finally awoke; staging a mighty comeback that propelled this tennis match into a 3-hour classic that likely won’t be recognized as such because few saw it. At 5-3 in the third, 12 deuces ensued before Williams, facing match point, hit long. Serena was now 46-1 in first round matches of Grand Slams.
My words can’t capture the magic of this match. I’ll leave that to Serena who, so gracefully and tearfully, put it into perspective saying, “I’ve been through so much in my life and…I’m not happy by no means. I just always think things can be worse.”
Virginie Razzano understands.
See you on TV.
(Copyright 2012 by CBSSan Francisco. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)