-- PARIS -- Serena Williams has major endorsement deals with Nike, Gatorade and Wilson, but perhaps she should get a sponsorship with a major construction company, as well. That way, she could take the court wearing a sheet of drywall on her back. Because based on her performance at this tournament, she plays her best when her back is firmly pressed against the wall.
Or maybe a steam shovel endorsement, because she is toughest after digging herself into an enormous hole.
Or maybe a deal with Grand Canyon National Park because ... oh, well, you get the point.
On Monday, the top-ranked player in the world reached the quarterfinals of the French Open after beating Sloane Stephens, but for the third match in a row it took Williams three sets to advance. It's the first time she's come back from a set down in three consecutive matches at a Grand Slam since she won the 1999 US Open at age 17.
"Yeah, I feel like I'm living on the edge. But I've got to get off the edge,'' Serena said. "I don't like to take chances, but at the same time this is also helping me, I guess, in terms of knowing that, 'Oh, I know can I play a two-hour match, I can do that.' And my next opponent is going to be a grind. I'm not just going to blow her off the court. Hopefully, I can play another three matches.
"But I don't really like to live like this. Believe me, I'm thinking, 'OK, Serena, pull yourself together. What do you do? Maybe you should go for a 5K before you walk out there.' You've got to do something to get your energy up in the first couple of points, first couple of games, first sets.
"So I'm definitely trying to figure that out, and I'm not really happy about my performance. It's OK to go two tough sets, but to go three sets back-to-back-to-back is on the verge of unprofessionalism for me.''
Serena had similar slow starts in Australia, but this current stretch began in the second round against 105th-ranked Anna-Lena Friedsam when Williams lost the first set and made 52 unforced errors before coming back to win. She lost the first set to Victoria Azarenka in the third round and also trailed 2-0 in the second set before coming back to win that one.
She went through it again Monday against Stephens, who famously beat Williams in the quarterfinals at the 2013 Australian Open.
Stephens hasn't beaten Serena since then, but it looked as if it would happen here after Stephens routed Williams in the first set 6-1 and then took a 2-0 lead in the second set. Stephens hasn't progressed much in her career since gaining fame at the 2013 Aussie, failing to reach a tournament final and sliding down to 40th in the rankings. But she always plays well at Roland Garros and hadn't dropped a set here this year until Monday. She actually won more points than Serena (94-93) but, as with the others, was unable to put her away.
"There's a reason why she's the No. 1 player in the world,'' Stephens said. "I played a good first set. I hung in there tough, but obviously things change.''
Perhaps that's because putting away Serena requires putting away the wall behind her back as well.
"I think Sloane played well,'' Williams said. "I don't think she gave away anything. I think I just had to play better. And I know I can play better. Like, 'OK, I need to maybe attack more, I need to use more spin or I need to change this up.'''
Williams was playing poorly -- she had 20 unforced errors to Stephens' four at one point -- and looked listless. But after winning a long rally when a Stephens shot landed just long to tie the second set at 3-3, Serena let out a loud scream. And from then on, she was as fierce and tough as usual. She won 10 of the final 15 games, her top drenched in sweat.
Her next opponent is Sara Errani, who has never beaten Williams in seven tries. But don't be surprised if it's another long match.
"I'm not worried about running out of gas,'' Serena said. "I'm 33. I'm not going to play another 10 years, so I better not run out of gas now. I'm not going to quit. Why stop now? I'm going to keep going as hard as I can until I'm out. And, you know, if that means I have to go another nine sets, then so be it.''