Motherhood may have mellowed Serena Williams away from the court, but on it the 36-year-old American remains as ferocious a competitor as ever. In the most significant match of her comeback so far, Williams beat Ashleigh Barty, the world No 17, 3-6, 6-3, 6-4 here in the second round of the French Open with a performance that suggests it might not be long before she is winning Grand Slam titles again.
Williams’ first Grand Slam tournament for 16 months might still be too early for the 36-year-old American to claim the one Grand Slam title she needs to match Margaret Court’s all-time record of 24, but this was a warning to the rest of the women’s game: Williams is back and she means business.
The most remarkable aspect of this win over one of the game’s best young talents was the way in which Williams turned her fortunes around after a slow start. For half an hour she seemed off the pace, struggling with her shot-making and even her self-belief, but by the end she was much more like the Serena of old.
The turnaround appeared to be down to her iron will as much as anything else. Screaming encouragement to herself and roaring in celebration at her winners, she must have been an intimidating presence on the other side of the net for Barty.
“After the first set I told myself I had to try harder,” Williams said afterwards in her on-court interview. “And then Serena came out!”
She added: “Every day is a great day for me. I’m excited to play singles and doubles. I’ll be fighting my heart out. It’s a great feeling.”
Williams not only struck the ball much better than she had in her first-round victory over Kristyna Pliskova but was also moving with more fluency than she had in any of her previous comeback matches.
You would hardly have guessed that this was a woman who had been confined to bed for six weeks following complications during and after the birth of her first daughter in September and who had played only four comeback matches – none of them on clay – before arriving here.
Some of Williams’ shot-making drew prolonged applause from an animated crowd in Court Philippe Chatrier as the Parisian public welcomed the American’s remarkable performance.
You had to feel some sympathy for Barty, who might have felt she had only a walk-on part on this great stage. The Australian was ranked outside the world’s top 300 at the end of 2016 after taking a break from tennis to play professional cricket, but has made a rapid rise up the rankings since making her return. The 22-year-old strikes the ball sweetly, can mix power with finesse and is an exceptional athlete.
For a set and a game, nevertheless, Williams’ chances of winning looked minimal. Barty, who showed no signs of nerves, held her serve comfortably, broke to love in the fifth game, served out for the first set and then broke to love again in the opening game of the second.
When Barty served at 1-0, however, Williams won the opening point with a thumping backhand return winner down the line, which she celebrated with a roar that almost seemed to shake the stadium’s foundations.
Suddenly hitting the ball much more cleanly, Williams broke for 1-1 to huge cheers from the crowd. By now she was also covering the court much more effectively, her defence sometimes proving as important as her ball-striking. Two games later Williams broke again and at 5-3 she served out for the set, levelling the match in typical fashion with a thumping ace.
At 1-1 in the deciding set Williams broke again, to more prolonged applause from the crowd. Barty saved a match point at 3-5 when Williams hit a forehand long, but in the following game the American went to 40-0 with a splendid forehand winner and then secured victory with an equally impressive backhand into the corner.
A jig of delight told you how much this win meant to Williams, who will now face Germany’s Julia Goerges, the world No 11, in the fourth round.
In the fourth round Williams could meet Maria Sharapova, who moved into the third round with a 7-5, 6-4 victory over the 21-year-old Croatian, Donna Vekic. Next up for the Russian is a meeting with Karolina Pliskova, the world No 6. Pliskova lost the first set to her fellow Czech, Lucie Safarova, but won 3-6, 6-4, 6-1.
Some of the tournament’s biggest names made more emphatic progress into the third round. Simona Halep swept aside Taylor Townsend, beating the American 6-3, 6-1 in just 68 minutes, while Garbine Muguruza beat Fiona Ferro, a French wild card, 6-4, 6-3.
Rafael Nadal had to save four break points in his opening game against Argentina’s Guido Pella but was soon in control against the world No 78. The defending champion won 6-2, 6-1, 6-1, which means he has now won his last 27 sets here.
Dominic Thiem, the only man who has beaten Nadal on clay in the last two years, held off the challenge of Stefanos Tsitsipas, winning 6-2, 2-6, 6-4, 6-4 in an entertaining encounter between two players with single-handed backhands, which is a rare sight these days.
Tsitsipas, aged 19, has climbed 122 places in the world rankings in the last nine months and is the second youngest player in the world’s top 100 behind Denis Shapovalov, who also went out of the tournament. The 19-year-old Canadian made 82 unforced errors in his 5-7, 7-6, 7-5, 6-4 defeat by the 22-year-old German, Maximillian Marterer.
Jamie Murray and Bruno Soares got their doubles campaign off to a winning start, beating Dusan Lajovic and Florian Mayer 6-1, 7-5.
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