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French Open 2018: Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova overcome different challenges to stay on course for last-16 collision

In her second round against Australian Ashleigh Barty, when Serena Williams was trailing by a set and a break, she won a point on her opponent’s serve and yelled her trademark, loud “Come on!” to will herself into action and shake off her inertia.

Two points later, she would let out another primal roar and fistpump — this time after an easy putaway at the net. Serena broke back in that game and then went on to win the match 3-6, 6-3, 6-4 in an hour and 48 minutes.

Serena’s win over the 17th-seeded Barty was her first against a top-20 player since returning from a 15-month break due to her pregnancy and post-birth health complications. It was also the first win that gave concrete evidence that Serena is on the path to returning to the top of the women’s game.

Serena Williams in action during her second round match against Australia's Ashleigh Barty at the French Open. Reuters

Serena Williams in action during her second round match against Australia's Ashleigh Barty at the French Open. Reuters

While Serena's first round match against Kristyna Pliskova was a contest of big serves and few rallies, Barty's crafty slice, well-placed forehands and variety troubled the American in the opening set. Serena's movement looked sluggish as she was made to run from one corner of the court to another and she took time to recover between points. She miscued her shots and leaked unforced errors, which allowed Barty to seal the opening set in just 31 minutes.

When Barty broke for love in the second set, a sense of dread filled Court Phillipe Chatrier. But not for the 23-time Grand Slam champion.

Serena has been playing far from her best tennis but in both her opening two rounds she was able to dig deep and flip a switch when she needed it the most. It was her champion's mentality and never-say-die attitude that kicked in as she cleaned up her game and started hitting with more depth and pace. Her ever-reliant serve helped her secure some easy points and as she grew in confidence, her 22-year-old opponent faded away.

"I'm probably not where I was before I left," Serena said in a post-match press conference after her win. "But the good news is I feel like I'm definitely going to get there. And I don't want to get there, I want to get beyond there. I don't want to limit myself. That's what I want to look forward to doing."

Serena, who has won the French Open thrice in her career, has been quite vocal about her desire for a record-equalling 24th Major title. Not that she needed any extra motivation, but the former World No 1 is playing with a changed perspective and a fresh outlook since becoming a mum. Her priorities may have shifted but the drive is still there, and her reflective mood in press conferences has revealed a different facet to her personality.

"This is a Grand Slam, my first one back. I want to do the best that I can. I want to be able to just do my best and one day tell my daughter that I tried my best. When I was out there, that's all I was trying to do," Serena said on Thursday.

She might be unseeded and ranked outside the top-450 in the world at the moment, but once she steps on court she still has the aura of a ruthless competitor. Her coach Patrick Mouratoglou had said ahead of Roland Garros that Serena is in the tournament to win the whole thing, otherwise she would not have entered the claycourt Major. Two matches down, and she is only getting better with every challenge.

Serena, who had played only four matches (won two), since making her return after pregnancy needs more match time to continue her quest to get back to her best.

However, her next opponent could prove to be her sternest test yet. Germany's Julia Goerges, seeded 11, has a wicked serve and powerful shotmaking in her arsenal and has the ability to match Serena for strength and pace on the court. Goerges reached the final at Charleston in the buildup to the French Open the third round at Madrid. If Serena does emerge victorious in her third round on Saturday, she could have a chance to renew her lopsided rivalry with Maria Sharapova.

Sharapova's grind on clay

In 2007, Sharapova famously called herself a “cow on ice” on clay because of her struggles with movement on the surface. However, over the past decade the Russian's tenacity and resilience helped her master her least preferred surface as she won the French Open in 2012 and 2014. Ironically, for all her dislike of clay, this is the only Major that Sharapova has won twice in her career.

This year, Sharapova made her return to Roland Garros after a gap of two years — she was suspended in 2016 for doping and was then controversially denied a wildcard in 2017. She ensured that her ranking was high enough to not have to rely on any help from the organisers and a timely semi-final run at Rome helped her be seeded 28th at Roland Garros.

In her opening round against Dutch qualifier Richel Hogenkamp, Sharapova was leading 6-1, 4-3 when she dropped six games on the trot to end up trailing 0-3 in the deciding set. Just when it looked like the match was slipping from her hands, Sharapova's mental toughness came to her rescue as she put up a gritty fightback to reel off six straight games ad win 6-1, 4-6, 6-3.

Maria Sharapova in action during her first round match against Netherlands' Richel Hogenkamp at the French Open. Reuters

Maria Sharapova in action during her first round match against Netherlands' Richel Hogenkamp at the French Open. Reuters

The five-time Grand Slam champion had a relatively easier outing in the second round, winning 7-5, 6-4 over World No 50 Donna Vekic but even this match had its fair share of drama. Vekic broke in the very first game of the match and even though she couldn't hold on the advantage for long, she never let Sharapova breathe easy. The Russian needed five match points to eventually seal hard-fought victory.

The biggest challenger for Sharapova is consistency. Over a best-of-three match, the Russian has suffered from lapses in concentration and has particularly had issues while closing sets out. Even against Vekic, Sharapova was serving for the match at 5-3 when she was broken. Her unreliable serve — Sharapova has hit 12 double faults through two matches — tends to let her down at crucial junctures. Her movement on clay has improved over the years but she still remains an awkward slider on this surface.

In her title-winning run in 2014, Sharapova had to battle three-set marathons from the last-16 right to the final, and it is her fortitude which is her biggest strength. When her back is against the wall, Sharapova manages to come up with some of her best tennis. It's not always pretty, but Sharapova has some of the strongest survival instincts in the sport and never stops fighting till the very last point.

"I love the challenge of being in a Grand Slam draw and figuring out a way to win. I mean, throughout two weeks, you play against different opponents and different circumstances. So there are a lot of ups and downs, a lot of different feelings, different matchups," Sharapova said after her win over Vekic.

"You've just got to find a way how to handle your emotions and how you handle the matches physically. I thrive on that. I enjoy that challenge, trying to see how I can bring that out of me," she added.

The former World No 1 will need all her resources in her next match against 6th seed Karolina Pliskova. Just like Sharapova, clay isn't Pliskova's favourite surface to play on, but her recent title at Stuttgart and semi-final appearance at Madrid showed that she can achieve success on the red dirt.

The third-round clash will be only the second meeting between Sharapova and Pliskova, with the Russian having won their last one in the 2015 Fed Cup final. Against the big-serving Czech, Sharapova has a tough contest on her hands and will need both her serve and return to click to have a shot at winning.

But Sharapova will be extra motivated knowing that a win on Saturday could set up a fourth round against her nemesis Serena. In their 21 meetings, Sharapova has won only twice with her last win coming back in 2004. If this much-anticipated match happens, it will probably represent Sharapova's best chance to finally overcome the American after such a long wait.

Updated Date: Jun 02, 2018 13:22 PM

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