Serena Williams

In a sea of filtered magic Serena Williams still shines, even as she struggles a little on court, even as others rage about her seeding, about her catsuit and her chances of winning another title at Roland Garros.
She has dominated the discussions here without trying, which just may irritate Maria Sharapova, who has toiled in her shadow, except maybe on the covers of magazines. For them to meet in the fourth round, though, Williams has to beat Julia Goerges on Saturday and the Russian has to get past the sixth seed, Karolina Pliskova. Years ago they would have been odds-on to do that but not this time. This is a transition tournament, more uncertain than when Serena and Maria ruled.

All week fans have waited for some drama. But the departure on Friday of the world No 4 players in the men’s and women’s draw – Grigor Dimitrov and Elina Svitolina – constituted a surprise rather than a shock, not as seismic as it would have been in previous third rounds.

What that has left is another layer of hustling in the last 16. Commentators will have to practise their pronunciation of Mihaela Buzarnescu, the world No 31 Romanian who did for Svitolina.

After the heat generated by the tournament refusing to grant Williams a seeding, the issue has been shredded. She has come through early hurdles and is at a point where she may have been anyway. It will not get any easier for her, nor should it.

It was plain on Thursday night that Williams was tired but happy after recovering from a poor start against the athletic Australian Ashleigh Barty to reach the first weekend, a place she used to regard as a pit stop on the way to the finishing line. The crowd shared her relief.

But just getting off the grid has been an achievement in her first major in 16 months, at 36 with a baby daughter vying for her attention with such as Krystina Pliskova, who took her to a tie-break on Tuesday, and Barty, who won the first set on Thursday evening before feeling the unique power of the woman who has won 23 majors and apparently is hungry for more.

Her coach and close friend, Patrick Mouratoglou, asserted before the tournament that Williams wanted to win here, not just compete. When asked the question directly this week, she said: “I’m not putting any pressure on myself as I normally do. I think deep down we all know the answer to that.”

The last time she let grand ambitions cloud her thoughts, she imploded when in sight of the calendar slam at the US Open in 2015, losing in the semi-finals to the world No43, Roberta Vinci, a doubles specialist a year younger than her. The American came within two points of reaching the final in front of her home crowd and blew it. For months, she could not hide her emotions, batting away questions about winning all four majors.

This time she looks more content. Nobody expects her to win – except maybe Mouratoglou and her sister, Venus, with whom she beat Sara Errani (Vinci’s long-time doubles partner) and Kirsten Flipkens.

As it stands, the world No 2 Caroline Wozniacki, Serena’s best friend other than her sister on the tour, should be among the favourites since the defending champion, Jelena Ostapenko, fell in the first round. Simona Halep, the world No 1, is still in and playing pretty well – but she collapsed in Rome.

The men’s draw has a different sort of uncertainty about it. It would take a brave fool to predict that Rafael Nadal will not be contesting the title again on Sunday week – and winning it. His choice of sparring partner, though, is far from clearcut. Oddly Novak Djokovic looked better beating Roberto Bautista Agut in 3hr 48min than he did in accounting for the Spanish qualifier Jaume Munar in 2hr 18mins on Wednesday. He is looking for the gears. Whether they mesh in the way they used will become clearer if he beats Fernando Verdasco on Sunday.



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