PARIS -- Normally, Serena Williams exhibits all the nervousness of a shark in a goldfish pond, so her confession of jitters here illuminates a French Open task she labels "uphill."
It's no wonder she hopped up and down all final-like on the Court Suzanne Lenglen after her 2 1/2-hour, first-round squeaker in the wacky wind of Tuesday afternoon, considering her 2009 clay-court preparation amounted to three tournaments, two countries, zero wins, three losses and one retirement.
As she moves toward her remarkable 38th second round in 38 grand-slam tournaments, this clunky preparation also rates less persuasive than it would be for all other players, for here is a 27-year-old who has the phoenix routine down well enough that she once won an Australian Open from 81st in the rankings.
Sure, her 6-3, 6-7 (5), 6-4 endurance over 100th-ranked Klara Zakopalova might have forged the only suspense of a rainy-but-chilly day when the other top-five players - Novak Djokovic, Juan Martin Del Potro, Svetlana Kuznetsova - won breezily.
Still, it's not necessarily foreboding that Williams said, "I played junior tennis or even worse."
It's far from unprecedented that she said: "Couldn't you tell how tortured I was? I think my face said it all."
Her frowns and grimaces and self-implorations through a match that took her nine match points to win might not foretell any more than her mother Oracene's big laugh from the stands after Williams couldn't convert on the fourth match point after a 30-shot rally longer than a French lunch. Eighteen three-set victories dot the 70 wins of Williams' 10 grand-slam titles, and it's a wide-open women's game even if she hasn't graced so much as a semifinal in this clay pit since 2003.
Williams' father and co-coach Richard Williams, having watched as his wife wore a winter coat and the crowd dressed in veritable Big Ten football garb, even brought up Julia Mae Williams, the highest praise he can offer.
His late mother "wouldn't let all the evil forces of hell stop her," Williams said, and she "didn't believe in turning around or giving up or giving in." She died "the first Sunday of May in 1985," Richard Williams said, "and I haven't had two good days since then."
What he saw Tuesday, he said, "was a champion that found a way to win on a day that she didn't play good. In order to be a champion, you have to win when you should lose."
What saw the No. 2 player in the world, the reigning U.S. and Australian Open champion, the player whom most everyone - including herself - reckons is really No. 1? More than anything, "I just wanted to win a match on clay," she said. Imagine.
Endangered American male
The dogged little country that probably can't, the United States, shed three more males Tuesday to complete the first round at 2-7 on the mean, savage, harrumphing clay of Roland Garros. Away went Bobby Reynolds, Mardy Fish and 16th-ranked James Blake, who had some promising clay results this spring but wound up bemoaning the Parisian cold and wind after losing in the gloaming to Leonardo Mayer of Argentina, 7-6 (6), 7-5, 6-2. Only No. 6 Andy Roddick and No. 86 Robert Kendrick remain.