PARIS — Serena Williams’ tennis dress was green and billowed in the breeze. The tape on her right thigh was white and tight.
It was a fashion clash, surely not what Williams had in mind when she approved this French Open ensemble. But the tape was a fitting symbol of her determination and persistence at age 39.
Williams is not at her peak, and she looked rusty indeed when she returned to the tour and the red clay in Italy last month. But she is serving and scrapping her way into a much better place in Paris, and on an overcast Friday afternoon at a lightly populated center court, she produced her most convincing performance of the week to defeat a fellow American, Danielle Collins, 6-4, 6-4.
The match was less straightforward and symmetrical than the score. Collins, who reached the quarterfinals at Roland Garros last year, led 4-1 in the second set after holding serve at love. The momentum appeared to have shifted, but Williams lifted, Collins dipped, and Williams did not lose another game.
“Today in particular, this whole week thus far, I just needed a win,” Williams said. “I needed to win tough matches. I needed to win sets. I needed to win being down. I needed to find me, know who I am. Nobody else is Serena out here. It’s me. It’s pretty cool.”
The one and only Serena is now back in the fourth round of the French Open, which is not unusual for a player who has won 23 Grand Slam singles titles but is extraordinary at this advanced stage of her game.
She is the oldest woman to reach the round of 16 in singles at Roland Garros in the Open era, surpassing her older sister Venus, who was 36 when she reached that round in Paris in 2017.
“I personally can’t imagine still playing at this level at almost 40 years old,” said Chanda Rubin, a former top 10 player who is now a Tennis Channel analyst. “People get used to things, and we’re all guilty of it. You start seeing it more often, and it becomes less amazing, but what she’s doing is still amazing to me.”
Success among older athletes is all the rage with Phil Mickelson winning the PGA Championship last month at 50, Tom Brady winning a Super Bowl in February at 43 and Sue Bird winning a WNBA title last year at 39.
There is clearly a role-modeling effect underway. Venus, who will turn 41 on June 17, is fading but still on tour, playing with tape and day-to-day pain of her own yet still hitting winners past women half her age.
Roger Federer, who turns 40 in August, remains in contention at this French Open after looking quick off the mark again Thursday as he defeated his longtime rival Marin Cilic in four sets on the same patch of red clay where Williams beat Collins in cooler, heavier conditions.
Seven Americans played third-round singles matches Thursday, including four men: John Isner, Steve Johnson, Reilly Opelka and Marcos Giron. Williams was the only American to prevail, and I asked the 27-year-old Collins afterward if seeing Williams and other icons succeed late into their 30s and beyond made her view her own future differently.
“I think that should give a lot of different athletes confidence, younger athletes especially, not to put as much pressure on themselves,” Collins said. “You’re seeing some of the greatest athletes in the world have some of their best success once they’re a little bit older. I think that goes to the maturity, the experience that they have at that point. It just shows how much of sports is a mental game, more so than just a physical game. It should give players confidence to see somebody like Serena or Tom Brady or Phil Mickelson.”
Of course, Williams, Federer, Brady and Mickelson were all young phenoms before they became enduring superstars. What made them exceptional initially has helped keep them exceptional, but they have also had to adapt: training differently, eating more carefully and, in the cases of Williams and Federer, competing more efficiently.
“Serena has had to make adjustments, just like Roger, to remain a factor at the majors,” Rubin said. “Look at Roger, being more aggressive and moving in, taking on that challenge, so I think that kind of adaptability is a requirement.”
Even so, it has been quite some time since they reaped tennis’ biggest rewards. Federer’s last major singles title came at the Australian Open in 2018; Williams’ came at the Australian Open in 2017, when she was two months pregnant with her daughter, Olympia.
But both have continued to give themselves major opportunities: two match points for Federer in the 2019 Wimbledon final against Djokovic; four different Grand Slam finals for Williams since her return from maternity leave.
The odds of winning another major are against them. Federer, who will play Saturday night against Dominik Koepfer in the third round, is still in the half of the men’s singles draw with Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal. But Williams’ section of the women’s draw has opened up promisingly. At No. 7, she is the highest seed left in the bottom half after No. 3 seed Aryna Sabalenka experienced her latest Grand Slam setback by losing 6-4, 2-6, 6-0 on Friday to Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova.
The only Grand Slam singles champions left in the bottom half are Williams and Victoria Azarenka, who is not at her most dangerous on clay. There is also Marketa Vondrousova, a left-handed Czech who reached the final here in 2019.
“There are some real challenges in front of Serena, but of course it’s possible,” Rubin said. “If you look at who’s left in her half, she has to feel pretty good about her chances. She can go toe-to-toe in any of those matches and lose them, but they are also winnable. That’s what you want, and she has to be feeling better about her game after seeing how she handled a tough challenge against Collins today.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.