Only illness can seemingly stop Serena Williams from becoming the oldest French Open champion in almost half a century after the ageless warrior pulled off yet another Houdini act in Paris.
Williams overcame sapping flu symptoms and apparent heat distress to battle back from a set and a service break down and secure a spot on Saturday’s title match against Lucie Safarova with a dramatic semi-final triumph over Swiss underdog Timea Bacsinszky.
Looking lethargic throughout, Williams appeared close to quitting the match on several occasions before roaring to life to reel off the last 10 games in a 4-6 6-3 6-0 victory on a scorching Thursday in Paris.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been this sick. I didn’t expect to win that and I can’t believe I won,” the American said.
“I got the flu after my third-round match and I haven’t been getting better.
“Hopefully this is the worst and I’ll get better.”
Unable to face the press following her two-hour ordeal, Williams issued a statement saying she needed to instead consult the tournament doctor.
“I am proud to be back in the final here at Roland Garros, in a city that means so much to me, and am determined to be 100 per cent ready for the final,” she said.
Swiss journalists privately slammed Williams’ comeback – and conduct – as “ridiculous” gamesmanship, while others questioned her on-court theatrics.
But the top seed’s vanquished opponent was gracious in defeat.
“She’s the only one who knows how she was feeling,” Bacsinszky said.
“I have no idea how fit she was or not. I knew on court it would be a difficult match. I never forgot that.
“She pulled out a great match because I think I was playing quite well.
“She deserved to win today. It happens. It’s only a tennis match.”
After a fourth successful fightback from a set down, Williams is now only one match away from landing a third French Open crown at almost 34.
The American has won all eight previous encounters with Safarova, a 7-5 7-5 victor over Serbia’s 2008 champion Ana Ivanovic in Thursday’s other semi-final, and will be a raging favourite to inflict another defeat on the first Czech finalist since Hana Mandlikova in 1981.
Victory would edge Williams to within two grand slam titles of Steffi Graf’s open-era record 22 career majors.
To do so, the world No.1 will need to achieve a feat not even she’s managed before – and complete the Australian-French Open double in the same season.
It is a rare double not accomplished in women’s tennis since Jennifer Capriati emerged from the sporting wilderness to claim the first two of her three slams in Melbourne and Paris in 2001.
The veteran also stared down the barrel in the third round against dual Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka and in a similarly desperate last-16 struggle against US compatriot Sloane Stephens.
Williams entered Thursday’s match with a 23-from-26 record in grand slam semi-finals, her only losses coming against older sister Venus at Wimbledon in 2000 and to Belgium’s fellow former world No.1s Justine Henin in Paris in 2003 and Kim Clijsters at the 2009 US Open.
Bacsinszky, who was washing dishes two years ago and cleaning rooms at a Swiss chalet after accepting an apprenticeship in hotel management while disillusioned with tennis, threatened to pull off a huge upset on Court Philippe Chatrier.
The tournament’s 23rd seed had never progressed beyond the third round in 20 previous grand slam appearances, but was three games away from setting up one of the most unlikely finals of all-time.
But Williams once again has tennis history at her mercy instead as she tries to add a third Roland Garros trophy to her collection, a record 13 years after landing her first.
HOW SERENA WILLIAMS AND LUCIE SAFAROVA MATCH UP AHEAD OF SATURDAY’S FRENCH OPEN FINAL (PREFIX DENOTES SEEDING):
1-SERENA WILLIAMS (USA) leads 13-LUCIE SAFAROVA (CZE) 8-0
2014 Beijing, hard, R16, Williams 6-1 1-6 6-2
2014 Montreal, hard, R16, Williams 7-5 6-4
2013 Charleston, clay, QF, Williams 6-4 6-1
2012 Charleston, clay, F, Williams 6-0 6-1
2011 Toronto, hard, QF, Williams 4-6 6-3 6-2
2009 Toronto, hard, QF, Williams 6-3 6-2
2007 Miami, hard, R32, Williams 6-3 6-4
2007 Hobart, hard, R16, Williams 6-3 3-6 7-6 (7-5)
Born: Saginaw, Michigan, USA
Lives: Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, USA
Plays: right-handed (two-handed backhand)
Career prize money: $US67,527,669 ($A86.76 million)
Career titles: 66
Career win-loss record: 715-121
Grand slam titles: 19 (Australian Open 2003, 2005, 2007, 2009, 2010, 2015; French Open 2002, 2013; Wimbledon 2002-03, 2009-10, 2012; US Open 1999, 2002, 2008, 2012-2014)
Grand slam win-loss record: 183-28
French Open win-loss record: 53-11
Best French Open performances: champion 2002, 2013
Road to final
1st rd: bt Andrea Hlavackova (CZE) 6-2 6-3
2nd rd: bt Anna-Lena Friedsam (GER) 5-7 6-3 6-3
3rd rd: bt 27-Victoria Azarenka (BLR) 3-6 6-4 6-2
4th rd: bt Sloane Stephens (USA) 1-6 7-5 6-3
QF: bt 17-Sara Errani (ITA) 6-1 6-3
SF: bt 23-Timea Bacsinszky (SUI) 4-6 6-3 6-0
LUCIE SAFAROVA (CZE)
Born: Brno, Czech Republic
Lives: Monte Carlo, Monaco
Plays: left-handed (two-handed backhand)
Career prize money: $US6,399,222 ($A8.22 million)
Career titles: 6
Career win-loss record: 376-259
Grand slam titles: 0
Grand slam win-loss record: 48-39
French Open win-loss record: 19-11
Best French Open performance: finalist 2015
Road to final
1st rd: bt Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova (RUS) 7-6 (8-6) 7-6 (11-9)
2nd rd: bt Kurumi Nara (JPN) 6-2 6-0
3rd rd: bt 20-Sabine Lisicki (GE) 6-3 7-6 (7-2)
4th rd: bt 2-Maria Sharapova (RUS) 7-6 (7-3) 6-4
QF: bt 21-Garbine Muguruza (ESP) 7-6 (7-3) 6-3
SF: bt 7-Ana Ivanovic (SRB) 7-5 7-5