French Open 2018

French Open 2018: Former champs Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams set 22nd showdown

Former French open champions Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova will meet in the round of 16

Former French Open champion Maria Sharapova Photo: The Sport Review

When the women’s draw was made 10 days ago, there was a certain frisson when a clutch of former French Open champions and former No1 players were drawn in the same section.

Garbine Muguruza, No3, picked up fellow former champ Svetlana Kuznetsova in the first round, and possibly a Roland Garros finalist and US Major champion, Sam Stosur, in the third round.

Of course, both Kuznetsova and Stosur arrived in Paris unseeded, but then so did a certain Serena Williams, three times a champion at the French Open, runner-up to Muguruza in her last appearance here, and barely back into competition since beginning maternity leave at the start of last year. And where did she fall in the draw? Into that same Muguruza quarter, but that was not the least of it.

She faced Kristyna Pliskova in her opener, No17 seed Ashleigh Barty in the second round, and then the serious prospect of in-form No11 Julia Goerges in the third round.

On paper, it looked like hard work for a woman who had come through so many post-natal complications at the end of last year, but dressed head to toe in black like a warrior, she slowly regained her aura through two successive singles matches plus two tough doubles matches.

Should Williams then beat Goerges, though, she would set a showdown between two of the biggest stars in women’s tennis—with two-time champion Maria Sharapova.

And while the prospect of that certainly stood out when the draw was made, it also looked an outside possibility. For it was not only Williams who had been away, who was having to fight back into contention.

Sharapova had been absent from Roland Garros even longer than Williams. She missed the 2016 French Open following her doping ban, she was then not granted a wild card after her return last spring, so with her ranking still rock bottom, she was unable to enter the draw until this year.

This time there could be no argument: after a quarter-final run in Madrid and the semis in Rome, she qualified with a seeding, though only just. That she should fall into that killer second quarter replete with other former champions was hardly an ideal scenario.

Two early wins set a third-round challenge for the Russian against the formidable power of No6 seed Karolina Pliskova, but if any further indication of Sharapova’s form and determination were needed, the 31-year-old showed her old champion’s ruthlessness in dismissing Pliskova for the loss of just three games, 6-2, 6-1, in under an hour.

She broke the big Czech serve no fewer than five times, hit 18 winners to Pliskova’s five, yet remained understated in her assessment of her dominating performance.

“I thought I did a really good job of being aggressive on the return, giving her different looks on the return. And I was solid. I played smart. I think I did the right things, I was aggressive on the break points, I went for it. I took the match rather than her giving it to me.”

She continued:

“I think I improved quite a lot in this match from my first two rounds. I had to. I didn’t really have a choice against a player like her.”

But what of Williams and that Goerges match? Well Serena too turned on the quality to play perhaps her best match since returning to the tennis fray, though until this week, there had been only four matches aside from a Fed Cup outing. She needed just over an hour and 15 minutes to put out the German, 6-3, 6-4, but she too remained understated in assessing where her form was at:

“There is still a way to go, but it’s moving in the right direction. And I think that as long as it’s moving in the right direction, I know I will get there, and I feel like every match I play I’m getting better and I’m playing tougher opponents and I’m hanging in there.”

And, after asking to keep the press conference brief so she could get back to her still-awake baby daughter, she went on:

“Well, quite frankly, she’s probably a favourite in this match [smiling], for sure. You know, she’s been playing for over a year now. I just started. So I’m just really trying to get my bearings and trying to feel out where I am and see where I can go.

“But I think this will be another test. I think this is just one of her best surfaces, and she always does really, really well here.”

Of course, for all the truth in that, Williams poses an entirely different challenge for Sharapova, given the one-sided history of the two women. The 23-time Major champion has won 19 of their 21 previous matches, with Sharapova’s only wins coming in her remarkable break-through as a teenager in 2004, when she beat Williams in the final of Wimbledon and then in the final of the WTA Championships.

Since then, Williams has dropped only three sets in total to Sharapova, but only once have they met in Paris, in the 2013 final—a win for Williams.

So how does Sharapova view the 22nd meeting?

“I think any time you play against Serena you know what you’re up against. You know the challenge that is upon you. You know, despite the record that I have against her, I always look forward to coming out on the court and competing against the best player.”

As it is, both women continue to inspire on and off court, as Sharapova explained.

“I think if you add all the things that we’re able to do in our lives and the amount of people that we’re able to inspire from our stories, from our background, where we came from, what we have been able to do outside the sport, in our own ways, I think it is very inspiring.

“I’m inspired a lot by what [Serena’s] been able to do… I think what speaks for itself is sort of that desire to keep doing that and the knowledge that we [still have] the driving force for everything we do. Because there is nothing, ultimately nothing, more inspiring than coming out on the court and, whether you don’t feel great or you’re having the best day, to have to try to win a match after all we have already achieved.”

There may have been times when another rematch looked increasingly unlikely: Williams will turn 37 in September, and the extended absences of both women over the last couple years, albeit for very different reasons, only made the chances seem slimmer.

But one only has to look at their intent in Paris this year to know this is far from over for either of them. Roll on No22.

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