French Open | Serena, Sharapova and Muguruza step up
Serena Williams is back, proud and defiant.
That she has played just four matches with only two wins under her belt since the birth of her daughter last September, and not graced the clay for two years, matters not a jot.
Conformity is not her thing, testified by the extraordinary lycra body wear she sported on the Philippe Chatrier Stadium on Tuesday, and the unconventional style of tennis she purports.
I always wanted to be a super hero, and it’s kind of my way of being a super hero, I feel like a super hero when I wear it. Serena Williams
Indomitable, formidable and determined, Serena may be forgiven for looking a little rusty and it was sheer will power that saw her into the second round of the French Championships against Kristyna Pliskova, who did everything she could think of to fell the former World No 1.
Williams is on a quest to bag her 24th Grand Slam title, is unseeded, and a very dangerous floater in the draw, facing hazards all the way.
She is in the No 3 seed’s quarter, that of 2016 winner Garbiñe Muguruza, somewhat a nemesis for her since she has lost to her twice on the clay in Paris, but she has earlier challenges to solve in the form of No 17 seed Ashleigh Barty, the other Pliskova twin (the sixth-seeded Karolina), and dangerous non-seeds Lucie Safarova and Maria Sharapova.
It took Williams a while to warm up, and Pliskova’s big leftie serving game did not help, but soon there were familiar signs, heavy forehands, and big serving from the American too, and the match would end with 28 aces altogether.
It headed to a tiebreak, with Williams working hard and breathing heavily as Pliskova took an early 3-0 lead, but the Czech then only managed one more point and Serena romped home with the set.
In the second, there were plenty of breaks on both sides, but it was Serena who finally edged the advantage at 4-3, looking more confident by the game as she chased down lobs, raced into the net to pick up drops, even slid to ground in her efforts.
She raised her hands to the sky in triumph, happy to have dispatched the 70th ranked Czech in an hour and forty-five minutes, 7-6(4) 6-4.
Williams won the Australian Open in January 2017 when she was already pregnant, and gave birth to her daughter in September but complications after the birth had delayed her return.
Although she was back in training very soon, she did not play until Indian Wells in early March where a third-round loss to sister Venus was followed by a first-round exit in Miami, resulting in her pulling out of the main clay tournaments in the run-up to Roland Garros.
An early arrival in Paris, a city she loves, helped her fitness to return, twenty years after her first appearance at the French Open when she was 16 years old, ranked No 27 in the world and playing in only her second clay-court tournament.
Now she is ranked 451, and although a protected ranking allowed her direct entry to the main draw, it did not entitle her to a seeding, so she played unseeded in a major for the first time since the Australian Open in 2007, which she won.
She was asked if she believed she could win here again, or was it the thrill of competing that drove her?
“I mean, I’m definitely here to compete and do the best that I can do, obviously,” Serena said.
“I’m not putting any pressure on myself, as I normally do. [But] I think deep down we all know the answer to that.”
While the jury may be out as far as the black Nike catsuit with a scarlet band around her waist was concerned, Williams certainly made a statement entrance.
“I always wanted to be a super hero, and it’s kind of my way of being a super hero,” she explained. “I feel like a super hero when I wear it.”
Unusually, Williams was, for once, on time to meet the media: “The biggest difference [since having a baby] is definitely I’m semi on time today, two minutes late, because I want to get home and see Olympia, because I have been here all day… usually we hang out all the time. If I’m not practicing, we’re hanging out.”
Her old rival, Sharapova, had a longer battle against Richel Hogenkamp, coming back from 0-3 down in the third set to win, 6-1 4-6 6-3.
The former World No 1 ended up spending more time than she would have wished on the court Suzanne Lenglen in defeating the Dutch qualifier, but the only thing that mattered was that she was into round two.
“I really dug deep but sometimes you need to go through these types of matches where things don’t go the way you want,” Sharapova said courtside.
“Happy the way I came back in the third set. “I’m so fortunate to be back in this position, I formed so many great memories here.”
Sharapova, seeded 28th, missed the 2016 tournament while serving a doping ban and failed in her bid to secure a wildcard entry into last year’s event.
After being given a warm welcome by the Roland Garros crowd when she arrived on court, the Russian raced to a 3-0 lead in the opening set.
She wrapped it up in just 24 minutes as she mixed her powerful game with a couple of delicate drop shots.
The five-times Grand Slam champion broke early in the second set too, only for Hogenkamp to level for 3-3.
Another trade of breaks ensued and Hogenkamp broke again in the 10th game to level the match when Sharapova netted a backhand.
Things then got much worse for Sharapova as she peppered the court with unforced errors, falling 3-0 down in the decider as Hogenkamp bagged six games in a row.
The double French Open champion’s never-say-die attitude resurfaced and she pocketed the remaining six games to set up a second-round meeting with Croatia’s Donna Vekic.
Later, she too reminisced about her time away and the pleasure of being back at one of her most successful tournaments: “Great to be back on a court that I have had great success at. I have always loved playing here.
“It’s been, from a young age, a Grand Slam that was very difficult for me to do well at physically, mentally. I overcame that. So to be back here and kind of relive those moments is very exciting.”
World No 3 Muguruza was facing a tricky opening round against Svetlana Kuznetsova but her victory in the battle of champions gave her an extra boost of confidence.
The Spaniard, who lifted the Suzanne Lenglen Cup in 2016, prevailed 7-6(0) 6-2 in a rain-disrupted match against the 2009 champion, a clay-court expert very few would like to take on so early in the tournament.
Although she has been struggling to return to top form after undergoing wrist surgery last year, World No 43 Kuznetsova remains a formidable opponent, but Muguruza stayed focused throughout, using her power, speed and poise to make the difference.
“It is, so to speak, [a] second-week match,” Muguruza told a news conference.
“But this is going to reinforce me. It was a very good first round, and the fact that I won, although it was a very difficult match, it was a match against an expert.
“The last matches I have played, the results were difficult. And I think that I feel very encouraged by this kind of a match.”
Muguruza next faces French wildcard Fiona Ferro, with a third-round showdown against Samantha Stosur, another major champion, on the cards.
There was a win too for Julia Goerges, all in this same, heavily-loaded quarter, that still boasts three French Open champions in the mix.