French Open 2018

French Open 2018: Dejected Serena Williams ‘beyond disappointed’ to withdraw from Sharapova showdown

Serena Williams pulls out of the French Open before her fourth-round match with Maria Sharapova because of an injury that affected her serve

It was undoubtedly the most highly-anticipated match of the Monday schedule, if not of the entire French Open tournament. As the draw gradually channelled together the two biggest stars in women’s tennis, three-time French Open champion Serena Williams and two-time champion Maria Sharapova, the buzz grew ever louder.

But another buzz gathered volume during the late afternoon as their 22nd match drew nearer: Williams may not make it after all. She had, indeed, shown signs of real problems with her serve during her doubles match with sister Venus the afternoon before, signs that perhaps a shoulder was feeling the strain of her return to tennis almost a year and a half after beginning maternity leave.

Sure enough, with less than hour to go, Williams called a press conference, in the very room where, almost two years before to the day, Rafael Nadal faced a packed room to announce his own withdrawal from the draw with a wrist injury. That had been ahead of the third round, this was ahead of the fourth—but it carried the same solemn, emotional weight.

Williams said:

“I unfortunately have been having some issues with my pec[toral] muscle, and has unfortunately been getting worse to the point where right now I can’t actually serve. It’s kind of hard to play when I can’t physically serve.

“The first time I felt it was against [Julia] Goerges in my last match… it was really painful and I didn’t know what it was.”

It so happened that Williams put on the best performance of the tournament against the in-form No11 seed, striding to victory in just 75 minutes, 20 winners for just 12 errors.

But she had opted to play the doubles draw here to supplement her practice regime. She explained:

“In my doubles yesterday I tried a lot of different tapings, and I tried lots of different types of support to see how it would feel under match circumstance. It didn’t really get a lot better.”

She will stay in Paris for an MRI and further consultations with specialists, and until those tests and conversations are complete, she is unable to predict her return date. But significantly, The Championships at Wimbledon begin in exactly four weeks’ time, and she is a seven-time winner there, including the last time she played in 2016. In effect, then, this summer would be her delayed chance to defend.

The complications she had following the birth of her daughter last September have been reported extensively, and she elaborated on them after her first match in Paris. Indeed the dramatic black cat-suit that she sported here was partly in response to the recurring blood clots and loss of core strength that she suffered as she attempted to regain her fitness.

It had, unsurprisingly, been a hard journey for the 36-year-old 23-time Major champion, and aside from her brief participation in the big Masters of Indian Wells and Miami, she had played no matches before Paris.

Even so, she was optimistic about how well she had stood up to her return to competition.

“Well, I have been doing so good. I have been really, every match has been getting better for me. Physically I’m doing great. You know, it hasn’t been easy. I sacrificed so much to be at this event.

“I can only take solace in the fact I’m going to continue to get better. And I had such a wonderful performance in my first Grand Slam back. I just feel like it’s only going to do better. And I’m coming up on hopefully surfaces that are my absolute favourite to play and that I do best on.”

Of course, aside from the disappointment of losing Williams from the draw, there was also the disappointment of missing out on the latest rematch against her old rival, Sharapova. The 31-year-old Russian has been on her own return mission, having not played at Roland Garros since 2015 following a doping ban.

Denied a wild card here last year, Sharapova made the seedings this year at the last gasp following a steady return to form on Europe’s clay—including a semi finish in Rome—and had demolished the No6 seed Karolina Pliskova for the loss of only three games to set this 22nd showdown.

She must surely have sensed her opportunity to get a first win over Williams since 2004, the year that the teenage superstar beat Williams in the finals of Wimbledon and the WTA Championships. She had since won only three sets against the American, and lost their only previous meeting at the French Open, the title match in 2013.

Williams said of missing their appointment:

“It’s very difficult, because I love playing Maria. You know, it’s just a match I always get up for. It’s just her game matches so well against mine.”

An understatement, of course, and nicely sidestepping a certain frisson between the two in the aftermath of the publication of Sharapova’s autobiography, “Unstoppable: My Life So Far.”

There has clearly been a difference of opinion over the comments Sharapova attributed to Williams: As the American said at another press conference here:

“I think the book was 100 percent hearsay, at least all the stuff I read and the quotes that I read, which was a little bit disappointing.”

That aside, Sharapova will return to the quarter-finals, where she will meet either Garbine Muguruza or the unseeded Lesia Tsurenko. But on her way out of Roland Garros, she said:

“I was looking forward to my match against Serena today and am disappointed that she had to withdraw. I wish her a speedy recovery and hope she returns to the tour soon.”

The last word, though, goes to Williams.

“It is difficult, because I have given up so much to be here. You know, there are times where I’m on the court and I’m practising, and I look on the monitor and I see my daughter, and I want to be there, but I know that these are the sacrifices you have to make to live out your dream. And I have made every sacrifice that I could. So it’s extremely disappointing.”

To the next time, then. With luck, that will be on the turf of Wimbledon. And with luck, it will not be too long before these two formidable women do again lock horns.

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