Serena Williams is now the only top ten player left in the bottom half of the women’s Roland Garros draw, a scenario that in almost all other years would mark her as a clear title favourite, no questions asked. At 39 years old, five years removed from her last successful clay season and as she tries to scrape off three-month old cobwebs in time, answers are needed. With her 6-3, 6-4 third-round win over Danielle Collins on Friday, some were indeed provided.
The match itself was high quality from all parts of the court and it pitted Williams against one of the more fascinating players. Florida-born Collins is an excellent athlete and her two-handed backhand is a stunning shot. Throughout the encounter, she lasered it from every part of the court. She is also loud and combative, known for shaking stadiums with the force of her cheers.
Williams had expressed her admiration for Collins before the match which, put simply, meant she was ready. She came out of the blocks serving, returning and moving at her highest level since the Australian Open. She lost just one point on her first serve in the set while putting constant pressure on Collins’ own service games and then she took the first break by showing her speed by chasing down a decent drop shot from Collins.
What was most impressive from Williams was how she recovered after losing rhythm on her second serve and errors crept into her game. If she was not feeling her game, a third set could have followed against an opponent more than capable of beating her. Instead, she won five games in a row to reach the fourth round.
“Today in particular, this whole week thus far, I just needed a win,” she said. “I needed to win tough matches. I needed to win sets. I needed to win being down. I needed to find me, know who I am.”
Earlier in the day the third seed and highest ranked player remaining in the draw, Aryna Sabalenka, was defeated 6-4, 2-6, 6-0 by Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova. She had the best clay-court season of her life, including a title at the Madrid Open and a final in Stuttgart, but once again she was unable to bring similar energy to a grand slam. Despite breaking into the top 15 three years ago, Sabalenka is still yet to pass the fourth round of a grand slam, a stage she has only reached twice.
Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova remained calm during moments of pressure from Aryna Sabalenka to progress in three sets. Photograph: Julian Finney/Getty Images
“As we say, I’m not the youngest right now,” said Pavlyuchenkova. “Usually the youngest players, they should feel sort of like fitter and fresher. I’m still here in the second week, still playing good tennis. That shows me that I was playing good tennis 10 years ago and still now, and probably I feel like I play even better and smarter. That’s obviously of course a positive thing for me.”
In the fourth round, Pavlyuchenkova will face the No 15 seed Victoria Azarenka, who dismantled Madison Keys, seeded No 23, 6-2, 6-2 to reach this stage of Roland Garros for the first time since her career best semi-final finish in 2013. Azarenka is rightfully under the radar following a slew of physical issues after reaching last year’s US Open final. However, she is healthy, moving better on clay than for much of her career and could well play herself into title-contending form.
In the men’s draw, Daniil Medvedev had never won a match at Roland Garros before this week and he has spent much of his time in the clay season expressing just how much clay court tennis disgusts him.
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And yet, he defeated Rome semi-finalist Reilly Opelka 6-4, 6-2, 6-4 to reach the fourth round at Roland Garros for the first time in his career. He says the conditions and the Roland Garros courts allow him to move and play as he plays on hard courts. He is happy. Medvedev will face the No 22 seed Cristian Garin next, an extremely difficult match against a player who defeated him on clay this year, but suddenly he is a contender in the open bottom half of the men’s draw.
The favourite to reach the final from the bottom half, however, continues to thrive. After winning just five points on John Isner’s serve in a complicated first set, Stefanos Tsitsipas produced three focused, high-quality sets to reach the fourth round with a 5-7, 6-3, 7-6 (3), 6-1 win.
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