Serena Williams is pure box office these days, and that she expects to be noticed is quite clear.
On Saturday, she produced the best performance so far in her return to Grand Slam tennis and easily reached the French Open’s fourth round, dominating for stretches against 11th-seeded Julia Goerges of Germany, and playing cleanly right from the start of a 6-3 6-4 tour de force at Court Suzanne Lenglen that lasted a mere 75 minutes and lacked much in the way of theatrics.
Quite frankly, she’s probably a favourite in this match, for sure, 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. Serena Williams
That she was again wearing a black Nike catsuit, which makes her feel like ‘a queen from Wakanda’, is a statement of her unconventionality in itself.
“I always wanted to be a superhero, and it’s kind of my way of being a superhero,” the 23-time major winner said after winning her first Grand Slam match since giving birth.
She possesses some super powers, to be sure – invincibility leading the charge.
She has been ranked World No 1 eight times by the WTA and named Laureus Sportswoman of the Year four times.
When she saw off the Goerges challenge to book her much-anticipated last 16 clash with Maria Sharapova, her invincibility becomes clearly evident.
The American broke once in the first set and twice in the second, although Goerges also managed to break once.
“There is still a ways to go, but it’s moving in the right direction,” Williams said after the match. “And I think that as long as it’s moving in the right direction, I know I will get there.”
So now she will face Sharapova, who beat Karolina Pliskova earlier in the day, and perhaps the best example of Serena’s invincibility is in her longstanding rivalry with the Russian, whom she has beaten 16 times in a row since 2004.
Sharapova advanced to their meeting with a similarly lopsided win, 6-2 6-1 against 2016 US Open runner-up, and now comes the drama: Williams vs. Sharapova on Monday with a quarter-final spot at stake.
Williams, 36, has 23 major singles titles to her name while Sharapova, 31, has won five.
Serena has won the French Open three times, Maria twice, and they are the only active women with a career Grand Slam (of only six to accomplish that), while both have been ranked No 1, but the head-to-head history is overwhelmingly in Williams’ favour – she has won 19 of 21 meetings, including 18 in a row and the last time Sharapova beat Williams was 14 years ago.
“Quite frankly, she’s probably a favourite in this match, for sure,” Williams said with a chuckle. “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.”
The last time they played was in the 2016 Australian Open quarter-finals, Sharapova’s final appearance before her 15-month drug suspension.
“Well, it’s been a while,” Sharapova said, “and I think a lot has happened in our lives for the both of us, in very different ways.”
Indeed, the doping ban gave the Russian time to write her autobiography, which was published last year and contains quite a bit of material about her rival, including a reference to Williams crying in the locker room after losing to Sharapova in the Wimbledon final 14 years ago.
“As a fan, I wanted to read the book and I was really excited for it to come out and I was really happy for her,” Williams said. “And then the book was a lot about me. I was surprised about that, to be honest.
“I was, like, ‘Oh, OK, I didn’t expect to be reading a book about me – that wasn’t necessarily true.”’
Insisting she doesn’t ‘have any negative feelings’ toward Sharapova, Williams added: “The success of one female should be the inspiration to another.”
Seconds later, she made reference to Sharapova’s ‘incident of drugs’.
No stranger to acrimony herself, Serena is resilient, having experienced both racism and sexism in her career.
In 2017, former professional tennis player Ilie Nastase was heard making a derogatory comment about Serena’s unborn child, asking: “Let’s see what colour it has. Chocolate with milk?”
In the same year, John McEnroe said Serena was ‘the best female player ever’, but argued ‘if she played the men’s circuit, she’d be like 700 in the world’.
Shortly after she tweeted that while she ‘adores and respects’ him, he should ‘keep me out of your statements that are not factually based’.
As one of the few celebrities to attend the Royal Wedding as a close friend of the Duchess of Sussex, Serena seems to be everywhere and knows almost everyone.
At her own wedding last year, celebrity guests included Beyonce, Jay-Z, Ciara and Kim Kardashian.
Known for her bold fashion choices, she has just released her long-anticipated streetwear fashion line, ‘Serena’.
“That was 2001. I had a vision to create a fashion line unrelated to tennis, but soon realised the complexities of manufacturing and running a business was more than my schedule would allow, as I focused on winning Grand Slams,” she said.
“I tried many times to align with people who could help me get things off the ground while I played tennis worked with designers and sketched my ideas. I got so many ‘no’s’ from potential partners, people I admired and respected.
“Every time I would go into a department store to present a collection it would always end up with – we love it but we are going to pass.
“15 years of false starts and people telling me ‘no’ was frustrating, but also made me more determined. If you know anything about me, you know that when someone tells me “no,” it only makes me work harder.
“One day, I was encouraging my best friend to invest in herself and pursue a dream of hers. A light bulb went off when I realised I needed to take my own advice.
“Here I was, a spokeswoman for women, telling them to never give up and believe in themselves when no one else does. I needed to take a moment to look in the mirror and encourage myself and invest in myself for once.
“23 Grand Slam titles later, I assembled my power team and we got to work. We designed and we planned. I wanted to be fully hands on, and work without any limitations. Everyone on the team believed in me and for the first time, I truly believed in myself.”
Since her early years in the sport, her on-court looks have consistently pushed the envelope, and her off-court looks have been just as unique, recently making headlines for wearing sneakers to both her own wedding and the Royal Wedding after-party.
In addition to now having her own brand, Williams is sponsored by Nike, where she has a signature line of tennis wear.
She made her Grand Slam debut Tuesday in a custom Nike ‘cat suit,’ in tribute to ‘all the moms out there that had a tough pregnancy and have to come back and try to be fierce, in the middle of everything’.
Serena, in fact, is stealing the headlines as the current World No 1 and top seed for the title, Simona Halep, eased herself quietly into the last 16 with a commanding victory over Andrea Petkovic on Saturday.
The Romanian met steady resistance in the first set but defeated the German, 7-5 6-0, after Petkovic, who is experiencing a return of form, struggled with what appears to be a knee injury for which she received treatment.
On court 18, in a rematch of the 2014 semi-final here, which Halep won 6-2 7-6(4), Petkovic was bidding for her first win over Halep since 2009, the first over a World No 1 since 2011, but then she jarred her knee on the clay early in the second set, and the 2014 and 2017 finalist dropped just one point on her serve in three games thereafter.
Halep, who celebrated the 31st win of the season, has reached at least the quarter-final stage in her last eight clay court tournaments and, in fact, she hasn’t lost before the last 8 on this surface since 2016 Roland Garros.
“I play better and better day by day. I can say that today I really felt the ball, and the game,” the Romanian said.
“The way that I finished pretty strong gives me confidence. I can say it was the best match here at this tournament.”
The Romanian needs to to move at least to the semi-finals to have a chance of holding onto the top ranking after Roland Garros, with Caroline Wozniacki and Grabiñe Muguruza the only players left in the draw who could usurp her.
Halep will next meet the No 16 seed, Belgian Elise Mertens, winner over Australia’s Daria Gavrilova , for a place in the quarter-finals of Roland Garros.
Elsewhere, France’s Caroline Garcia continued to keep her nation’s flag flying with a convincing 6-1 6-3 win over another Romanian, Irina-Camelia Begu.
Garcia powered her way into the second week of Roland Garros for the second straight year, dismissing the Begu challenge in an hour and 19 minutes.
Entering Roland Garros as the No 1 French player for the first time, Garcia showed little sign of tension in her first round against Duan Yingying, but was taken to three sets by Peng Shuai in the second.
Begu, who reached the fourth round here in 2016, had beaten Garcia twice in five meetings so presented another stern test.
The Stuttgart and Madrid semi-finalist came on court to an air of local disappointment, having been preceded by losses for ATP compatriots Richard Gasquet and Gaël Monfils, the latter over five sets on Suzanne Lenglen Court, where Garcia was also playing.
She shot out of the gates, however, rattling off the first 11 points of the match with a barrage of big serves and forehand winners.
Dominant on serve, she ceded only five points behind her delivery and just two games posed any real challenge.
Begu lit upon booming first serves of her own to hold to love but, conversely, two games later the Romanian would serve four double faults and spurn five game points to fall behind a double break.
A delicate volley and a lightning forehand down the line from Garcia paved the way to an immediate break point, to which Begu responded with her fifth double fault.
Frequently, the World No 40’s groundstrokes would be unable to cope with the sheer weight of Garcia’s shots, and her 29 unforced errors over 16 games simply provided the local favourite with too comfortable a cushion.
In irresistible form, Garcia struck 18 winners and dropped just 3 further points on serve as she forged her way to a 5-1 lead.
Then, for the first time, Begu orchestrated her first break point chances of the match and took the game when an attempted Garcia counter-drop limped halfway up the net.
Begu’s service woes continued to plague her, however, and the final game of the match featured some of the best tennis of the match extended over 7 deuces that included the Romanian’s 8th and 9th double faults of the day.
The 27-year-old fought off 4 match points, 3 with service winners and one with a spectacular inside-out forehand winner but, in the end, she succumbed by burying a put-away forehand in the net.
Garcia will next take on the resurgent No 12 seed Angelique Kerber, who advanced over Kiki Bertens, 7-6(4) 7-6(4).