PARIS — Serena Williams’s poker face revealed nothing about the lousy card that would almost certainly doom her chances at securing a fourth French Open singles title. In her opening victory against Kristie Ahn, she disguised her gait, too.
Williams’s tell came after the match, when she arrived early for her virtual news conference. She is so often fashionably late to meet with the media, the running joke in press rooms is that deadlines are no match for Serena time.
Williams, a 23-time Grand Slam champion in singles, entered the tournament with pain from an injured left Achilles’ tendon. When she said offhandedly that she needed to get the virtual interrogation over with so she could resume her treatment, including laser therapy, ice application and “a ton of prayer,” it was a neon sign that she was not holding a winning hand.
On Wednesday, around the time she should have been preparing to step on Philippe Chatrier Court for her second-round match against Tsvetana Pironkova, she instead returned to the interview room to explain her decision to withdraw from the tournament.
“I really wanted to give an effort here,” Williams said, adding: “But just looking long-term in this tournament, will I be able to get through enough matches? For me, I don’t think I could. I was struggling to walk. That’s kind of a telltale sign that I should try to recover.”
Williams arrived in pain. She came to Paris because she believed she could contend for another major title.
Both statements, however incongruous, are true. Athletes become greats through their willingness to keep going, with the foot on the accelerator, when their bodies are flashing red lights.
Like the American golfer Tiger Woods at the 2008 United States Open and Spain’s Rafael Nadal here four years ago, Williams wants to win so much that not trying was not an option.
“I’m not at 100 percent physically,” she said on the eve of the tournament. “But I don’t know any athlete that ever plays physically when they’re feeling perfect.”
Woods’s gamble paid off; he won his 14th major championship in 2008 in a playoff. Nadal’s did not; he withdrew in 2016 before his third-round match because he feared doing irreparable harm by continuing his French Open run.
Nadal recovered and added five more major titles to his brilliant and still building résumé. Likewise, Williams sees no reason she cannot come back better than ever from this latest injury, which she aggravated three weeks ago during her United States Open semifinal loss to Victoria Azarenka.
“If it was my knee it would be really more devastating for me,” Williams said. She added: “This is something that just happened. It is super acute. I feel like my body is actually doing really, really well. I just ran into, for lack of a better word, bad timing and bad luck, really, in New York.”
Williams, 39, Woods, 44, and Nadal, 34, are pals in pursuit of perpetuity, their bonds strengthened by the history each is chasing. Williams and Nadal are one championship from equaling the major victories records, held by Margaret Court with 24 and Roger Federer with 20; Woods is three from tying Jack Nicklaus at 18.
“It gets harder to win as we all age,” said Woods, who will defend his 15th major title at the rescheduled Masters in November.
He added: “I think that whether it’s Rafa or Fed or Serena, they’ve been so consistent and so dominant for such a long period of time, that’s how you can have those all-time marks. Consistency over a long period of time is the hallmark of those records.”
A competitiveness that feeds a disdain for pain makes that consistency possible. When asked why he never said anything about his injured leg in 2008, Woods said: “You never want to let any of the guys know you’re hurt in any sport. Doesn’t matter, ever.”
Williams echoed that sentiment when she said, referring to her match against Ahn, “I had to focus on walking straight so I wasn’t limping.”
Nadal understood completely. Of course he did.
“Well, you don’t want to show that if you really believe that you can keep going,” Nadal said Wednesday after he advanced to the third round.
Expounding on the mind-set that molds the greats, Nadal added: “You really believe that maybe you win that match, then you can improve a little bit for the next couple of matches with the doctor or the staff after that victory, then it is normal that you are not showing anything to the world. Then if you can’t keep going, that is the moment to go and say: ‘You know, guys, I can’t anymore. That’s it.’”
Williams’s moment of truth came after her brief prematch hitting session. After consulting with her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, Williams decided it was better to withdraw than risk making the injury worse.
“I don’t want it to get to that point where it can’t get better,” she said.
It is notable that Williams made it here at all. Playing two majors in the span of just over a month has taken its toll on players with considerably less tread on their tires. Elina Svitolina, 26, of Ukraine, said she has needed an extra half-hour massage after each match to recover.
Taylor Fritz of the United States said he was “definitely more sore” after his first-round, five-set match than he expected to be. Fritz is 22. Williams has Hermès handbags that are older than that.
“I love playing tennis, obviously,” Williams said. “I love competing.”
She added: “And I’m so close to some things, so I feel like I’m almost there. I think that’s what keeps me going.”
Christopher Clarey contributed reporting.