A new chapter in the Serena Williams-Maria Sharapova rivalry will be written after the superstar pair set up a highly-anticipated fourth round with wins at Roland Garros on Saturday.
The last time Williams and Sharapova played was in the 2016 Australian Open quarter-finals, which was the same day the Russian failed a drugs test that eventually led to a 15-month suspension.
Williams won the Australian Open the following year while pregnant, and returned from maternity leave to the tour last March, married and with a baby girl she named Olympia.
Sharapova and Williams have a tense history, as words were aimed at each other in press conferences in the past.
On Saturday, Williams took the opportunity to express her disappointment at some of the things Sharapova said about her in her recently-published autobiography ‘Unstoppable’. Sharapova attributed Williams’ fierce 19-2 head-to-head record against her to the Russian’s upset win over Williams in the Wimbledon final back in 2004.
“I was changing and she was bawling. I think Serena hated me for being the skinny kid who beat her, against all odds, at Wimbledon,” said Sharapova in her book.
Williams responded on Saturday after her 6-3, 6-4 win over No. 11 seed Julia Goerges, saying: “I think the book was 100 per cent hearsay, at least all the stuff I read and the quotes that I read, which was a little bit disappointing.
“I have cried in the locker room many times after a loss, and that’s what I have seen a lot of people do. I think it’s normal. I think if anything, it shows the passion and the desire and the will that you have to want to go out there and do the best.”
Williams insisted that she never “had any hard feelings towards her”, which is why she was letdown by the statements in the autobiography. She also noted that she never said anything negative about Sharapova during her doping ordeal.
“One of the things I always say, I feel like women, especially, should bring each other up,” said Williams.
“A lot of people always assume that I feel a different way and it’s not true. If anything, I feel like we should encourage each other, and the success of one female should be the inspiration to another.
“Before her incident of drugs or not, I just feel like she was doing good before that. So I feel like now she’s doing well again, and I have never had any hard feelings toward her.”
— Maria Sharapova (@MariaSharapova) April 17, 2017
A lot has changed for both Williams and Sharapova, and the excitement surrounding this match-up – which was flagged the second the draw was made 10 days ago – is certainly palpable here in Paris.
“I think any time you play against Serena you know what you’re up against. You know the challenge that is upon you. Despite the record that I have against her, I always look forward to coming out on the court and competing against the best player. I will look forward to doing that,” Sharapova told reporters at the French Open following her ruthless 6-2, 6-1 victory over sixth-seeded Karolina Pliskova on Saturday.
Sharapova hasn’t defeated Williams in 14 years and is frank when it comes to discussing the reasons behind that drought.
“I think there is a lot of things in her game that she’s done much better than I have. I mean, the records don’t certainly elaborate on that. Numbers don’t lie,” said the Russian five-time Grand Slam champion.
“But of course, I came into Europe and Stuttgart with not a great record, not playing great tennis with a lot of injuries, and have been able to turn that around a little bit.
“Been able to put myself in this position of playing better tennis. That’s what I continue to work for, of course. You don’t put those hours on the back courts in Bradenton-frickin’-Florida to just show up at events like this and not bring it.”
Some might be surprised by the way Sharapova eased past Pliskova but not the latter’s compatriot Petra Kvitova, who saw her 13-match winning streak come to an end at the hands of 25th-seeded Estonian Anett Kontaveit on Saturday.
“It’s not a surprise to me, actually. I think that she’s playing great game. She had a great run in Rome as well. She loves to play here. Otherwise, she’s not winning two times here,” Kvitova said of Sharapova.
“Maybe the score a little bit surprised me, but I think that she’s on the good way back, and that’s how it is. I think it’s a big win for her confidence.”
Williams, who has played just seven matches this season, considers Sharapova the favourite entering this showdown.
“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,” said the 36-year-old Williams.
“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. So this would be a good opportunity for me kind of to see where I am and just hopefully continue to go forward.”
Romanian world No. 1 Simona Halep, who was scheduled on the new Court 18 located on the far end of the Roland Garros grounds, survived a tight first set against Andrea Petkovic before the German suffered a knee problem early in the second. Two-time Paris runner-up Halep booked a place in the fourth round with a 7-5, 6-0 victory and next faces in-form Belgian Elise Mertens.
“Today was a little bit different, because the court is pretty small, and I felt that all the people were on court with me,” said Halep, whose bizarre court scheduling was met with outrage from many fans online.
“So it was tough to adjust myself, coming from Chatrier it’s a bit difficult. But I just needed a few games and then I think I played okay. I think I played well.”
Reigning US Open champion Sloane Stephens fought tooth and nail, stopping Camila Giorgi twice from serving out the match to defeat the Italian 4-6, 6-1, 8-6 and set up a fourth round against Kontaveit.
Karolina Pliskova described her 6-2, 6-1 defeat to Maria Sharapova in the Roland Garros third round on Saturday as one of the worst matches from her side this season, adding that players like the Russian and Serena Williams know how to do whatever it takes to get a victory.
Pliskova, ranked No. 6 in the world, believes Sharapova is well on her way back to her best, but the Czech also rued her poor performance, saying her entire Roland Garros this year was sub-par.
“I think nothing was working for me and on the other side I think she was playing very well, hitting all the balls pretty deep. I didn’t have any chances – I had some chances but there weren’t many of them,” Pliskova said after the match.
“I think it was one of the worse matches this year from me…
“I don’t think I played well here throughout this tournament, not even any practice, not even any warm-up, not even any match. And this is the result.”
Sharapova has struggled with injuries since her return from a doping ban 13 months ago but found form in the build-up to the French Open, making the quarters in Madrid and semis in Rome – where she took out a sixth-ranked Jelena Ostapenko – to snag a last-minute seeding at Roland Garros.
Playing in Paris for the first time since 2015, Sharapova was pleased to make a return to Court Philippe Chatrier, and now awaits the winner of the clash between Serena Williams and Julia Goerges.
Pliskova, who often plays doubles with Goerges, believes the German has a chance against Serena, who claimed her first top-20 win since returning from maternity leave in the second round against Ashleigh Barty.
“I think she [Julia] has a chance today for sure, I just talked to her in the locker room a little bit. But still it’s Serena. It’s going to be tough to beat her because of the name for sure,” said Pliskova.
Asked to elaborate, Pliskova added: “Because it’s Serena Williams, even if she plays bad it’s still tough to beat her, it’s still tough to close the match. That’s how it is with those girls, so there is not always the best tennis but they just fight and they know how to turn the matches.”
While Sharapova was out of the game, Pliskova reached her first Grand Slam final, at the US Open in 2016, defeating Serena en route. The 26-year-old Czech rose to No. 1 in the world last year and has a serve that can intimidate many players out there. With Sharapova seeded 28 and still finding her way back, did Pliskova still feel the X-factor she was referring to earlier about Sharapova and Serena?
“I think for sure she is a name, not only because she’s Sharapova, but because she won a lot of tournaments, and not only because of what she had with doping or whatever, she’s a good player,” said Pliskova.
“She’s tough always, even if she’s double-faulting, or giving you a lot of mistakes, I think she can just play very well, aggressive. It’s the same with Serena, those girls just don’t give you the match for free, you just have to work for it. It doesn’t matter how bad she’s playing.”
She continued: “I think nobody is going to give you anything, because everybody is still playing, it’s a Grand Slam. But I think they [players like Sharapova] just try different things than maybe I try.
“I don’t take 30 seconds between every point to just make the opponent feel worse and those stuff. It’s more about the behaving around, not the tennis.
“So I think there is nobody who will give you a set, not even a game. She can give you a lot of mistakes, it’s not about the game of tennis, but it’s about the behaviour around, she does everything possible to win the match. Whether it’s with the timer, whatever, she screams, she does everything possible to win.”
Pliskova expects to head back home to Monaco before shifting her focus to the grass season and joked, “I don’t want to see any courts, not even grass courts” for a while.
On her part, Sharapova was thrilled by her clinical performance against Pliskova, who made semis in Paris last year, and won Stuttgart earlier this clay season.
“I think I was happy and smiling. I guess these are the types of occasions where you want to play really good, solid tennis against a top-10 player that’s been playing extremely well. When you’re able to deliver that on a Grand Slam stage, I think it makes it extra special,” said Sharapova.
The pair have not faced off in nearly seven years, with Serena winning their two previous meetings, at Roland Garros in 2010, and Toronto in 2011.
Goerges has reached seven finals within the last 11 months and entered the top-10 for the first time last February.
Although her clay preparations heading into Roland Garros were hampered by illness that forced her out of Rome, Goerges seems to be in great form entering her clash with Serena, who took out Kristyna Pliskova and No. 17 seed Ashleigh Barty in her first two matches here in Paris.
WHAT THE PLAYERS SAID
Serena, who was out of action for a year, in which she had her first child, Olympia, and got married, had been keeping tabs on the tour it seems while she way away from the game.
The American 23-time Grand Slam champion said this about Goerges:
“She’s been playing really, really well, and I have actually been watching her play a lot when I was pregnant, because she’s been winning a lot and they show a lot of her matches.
“It would be good to play her. Every round for me is just an opportunity to go out there and do the best that I can do, and whether I win or lose, that’s what I’m out here to do in this tournament.”
Goerges, who hurt her neck during her warm-up ahead of her second-round win over Alison van Uytvanck, is hoping that issue does not affect her serving. The 29-year-old said this about her upcoming showdown with Serena, as quoted by German outlet mytennis.info.
“I believe the name Williams has an incredible status in tennis, and rightfully so. Serena hasn’t won 23 Slams in passing. Still, I believe you’ve got to distance yourself a little from the name of your opponent.
“I want to play my game, regardless of who is on the other side. Sometimes that is easier said than done but that is how I want to go about this match. For me it’s fantastic that I get to play Serena even if it’s already in the third round of a Slam, no matter what people say about the draw. But at the end you need to take every opponent seriously: whether that’s Serena, van Uytvanck or Cibulkova.”
THE NUMBERS GAME
0-4 – Goerges’ win-loss record against the Williams sisters.
3 – Roland Garros titles Serena has won.
5 – times Goerges has made the fourth round at a Grand Slam, but has never advanced further than that. A win over Serena would see her make that six.
6 – Serena has played just six singles matches in the last 16 months.
11-2 – Serena’s win-loss record in Roland Garros third round matches.
16 – Serena is making her 16th Roland Garros appearance.
17 – aces from Goerges so far in Paris across her first two rounds.
22-10 – Goerges’ 2018 win-loss record.
22 – aces struck by Serena across her two matches so far in Paris.
51 – Goerges’ ranking in Paris last year. She is currently at No. 11.
60 – Serena has saved 60% (6/10) of the break points she faced so far in the tournament.
69 – Goerges has saved 69% (9/13) of the break points she faced this event so far.
81 – winners from Goerges across her first two rounds this fortnight, compared to Serena’s 57.