Serena Williams said she was feeling relaxed about her hopes of defending her French Open crown on Friday and drawing level with Steffi Graf’s Open Era record of 22 Grand Slam singles titles.

The 34-year-old, whose two previous attempts to retain the title at Roland Garros ended prematurely, will begin her defence against Slovakia’s Magdalena Rybarikova, the world number 76, who has yet to make it beyond the second round in Paris.

“I think in the past there was,” said Williams, who beat Lucie Safarova in last year’s final, when asked whether she approached tournaments where she was the defending champion with a different mindset.

“I think now it’s different because I want to win more than I think most people ever, but also I think it’s different now because I don’t have anything to prove and I don’t have anything — it’s just a different feeling.

“Whereas five, ten years ago, oh, I’m defending and I feel that pressure. Now it’s like I’m defending, I’m in Paris, it’s cool, and I’m having, you know, the time of my life. I’m just happy to be here.”

The top-ranked American is launching a third bid to match Steffi Graf’s major record, although just three of Williams’ 21 Grand Slam titles have come in France — the first in 2002 and then a long gap until 2013 and 2015.

Williams could come up against former world number one and two-time Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka, who defeated the American at Indian Wells in March, in the quarter-finals.

However, a pair of former champions lie in wait beforehand with 2010 winner Francesca Schiavone a potential third-round opponent and Ana Ivanovic, who claimed her lone Grand Slam on Court Philippe Chatrier in 2008, a prospective last-16 foe.

Williams arrives in the French capital full of confidence and on the back of a first title in nine months after knocking off compatriot Madison Keys in last weekend’s Rome final.

“It felt good to win in Rome, obviously. I was feeling pretty confident, I think, just going into some of those matches. Especially the last few I felt a lot better. Even if I’d have lost, I feel like some of those matches really gave me the match play that I needed.”

Williams has played sparingly since losing out on a chance at the calendar Grand Slam at last year’s US Open, featuring in just four tournaments this season but reaching the final in three of those.

“I guess when you win all the time, if you go a couple of tournaments and don’t win them it’s like you’re in a drought,” she said, with her victory in Italy the 70th of her career and first since triumphing in Cincinnati last August.

Two players Williams won’t have to worry about in Paris are two-time champion Maria Sharapova, who is serving a doping suspension, and the injured Caroline Wozniacki. – Agence France-Presse

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