Yulia Putintseva's height is listed as 5’4”, but anyone watching her take a seat on changeovers on Thursday might have suspected that that was a little generous. Putintseva was probably the only player at this year’s French Open whose sneaker heels couldn’t touch the clay when she sat in her sideline chair.
But for the better part of two hours, to the delight of the famously hard-to-please Parisian crowd, Putintseva stood as tall as any woman at this year’s French Open. The pint-sized Russian-turned-Kazakh ran, slid, grunted, screamed, fist-pumped, fist-pumped and fist-pumped some more. When she won the first set, Putintseva lifted her arms in the air in an attempt to raise the (non-existent) roof in Court Philippe Chatrier. Then she looked up at her player's box and smiled at her own theatrics, as if to say, “Wow, look what got into me!”
More stunning, though, was the fact that the 60th-ranked, 21-year-old Putintseva, who had never been past the third round at a Grand Slam in her brief pro career, nearly beat Serena Williams. Playing with speed, touch, grit and tactical savvy, she forced Serena to hit one more ball—often from uncomfortable positions—and ran her nearly ragged. Putintseva won the first set 7-5, and had two break points at 4-4 in the second; for a millisecond, the impossible suddenly became possible.
And, as we’ve seen so many times before in these Cinderella situations, that’s exactly when Putintseva stopped doing what she’d been doing and started to miss. On the first break point, Serena, seemingly desperate to get off the baseline as quickly as possible, threw up a moonball and ran in behind it. Putintseva, unable to make her pay for taking such a risk, pulled a backhand wide. On the second break point, Serena drilled a forehand that clipped the top of the net and went over; as she retreated, Putintseva saw an opening. Again, she couldn’t make Serena pay and hit a backhand long. Putintseva slapped the brim of her baseball hat down. She knew she had let an opportunity slip.
She was right. Serving at 4-5, down 30-40, Putintseva double faulted to give the set away. It was all the room Serena needed. By the middle of the third set, she was hitting the ball cleanly, and hitting it past Putintseva. She won going away, 5-7, 6-4, 6-1.
"I think the match was very close and very far from being on my side," Putintseva said afterward.
It wouldn’t be a Grand Slam without a great escape from Serena, right? Last year at Roland Garros, she pulled off five, to be exact, and this match was a microcosm of them all. So far this time around, Serena hadn’t shown any signs of sluggishness; coming into the quarters, she had won 18 straight sets dating back to last month’s Italian Open. What this performance means for the rest of her tournament is anybody’s guess. Sometimes she gets the bad play out of her system and finds her best form again. (See the 2015 Australian Open.) Other times the bad play lingers and she still wins. (See the 2015 French Open.) Other times, it lingers and she doesn’t win. (See the 2015 U.S. Open.)
Unlike Roberta Vinci at Flushing Meadows last year, Putintseva didn’t have a way to take control of the rallies when she got nervous. She had to wait for Serena to miss, and Serena stopped missing. Even in defeat, though, Putintseva achieved something just as difficult: Her energy and spontaneity were enough to put a spark of life into another exceedingly dreary day in Paris. Any player who can do that is someone worth watching in the future.