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Serena Williams revives No. 24 hopes with Paris surge
As other contenders have exited, Williams has improved with each match. In her third-round win over Danielle Collins, she won with strong play in one set, and a strong will in the other.
Published Jun 04, 2021
WATCH: Serena Williams returns to the fourth round of Roland Garros for the first time since 2018.
Can we start thinking about that number again…24?
Since 2017, it has been the most popular and elusive two digits in tennis, as Serena Williams has made a late-career quest to tie Margaret Court’s record of 24 Grand Slam singles titles.
As this year’s French Open began, though, that number didn’t come up as often as it usually does. It wasn’t hard to see why. Serena was just 1-2 in her clay tune-up events, and she hasn’t been past the fourth round at Roland Garros since 2016. The assumption was that her best chance to win another major would come on the faster surfaces at Wimbledon and the US Open. It didn’t help that Naomi Osaka, who beat Serena at the Australian Open, was in her half, as was pre-tournament favorite Aryna Sabalenka.
Neither of them are there now. Osaka pulled out before her second-round match, and Sabalenka was bageled by Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in the third round on Friday. They aren’t the only big names who have fallen in surprising fashion so far. No. 1 seed Ashleigh Barty had to retire from her second-round match with a hip injury; No. 11 seed Petra Kvitova, who was in Serena’s quarter, had to withdraw after hurting her ankle while leaving a press conference; and Garbiñe Muguruza, who beat Serena in the 2016 Roland Garros final, lost in her opener.
Meanwhile, Serena is alive and well in the fourth round, and seemingly improving with each match. On Friday, she beat a potentially dangerous opponent in Danielle Collins, 6-4, 6-4. She did it in vintage Serena style: With strong play in one set, and a strong will in the other.
“Was it my best match of the week?” Serena asked herself when that idea was proposed to her today. “I don’t know. I felt that I needed to be really focused in this match because she’s playing really well.
“I’ve had a rough clay-court season so far, so I’m happy to get some wins on the clay.”
Williams vs. Collins seemed like a recipe for tennis at maximum volume and intensity: Neither is afraid to let the audience, or her opponent, know how she feels. But the first set was filled with quiet, tense, tactical, hard-hitting tennis. Each tried to grab control of the rallies as soon as she could. Each went after her returns, and forced the other to make adjustments on her serve. At 3-3, Serena raised her level, with a return winner and a volley winner, to record the only break of the set, and held out from there.
Nobody else is Serena out here. It’s me. It’s pretty cool.
In the second set, it was Collins who raised her game, while Serena’s level dipped. In the second game, Collins broke on a Serena double fault, and broke again on another Serena double fault to go up 3-1. When Collins hit a forehand winner to hold at love for 4-1, and then went up 0-15 on Serena’s serve, the match looked destined for a third set.
Maybe that’s what Collins thought, too. On the next point, she had a chance to hit a backhand into an open court for a sure winner, but she pushed it just wide. That only made the score 15-15, but Serena seized on the miss immediately. She bent down and screamed, imploring herself to play better. The mood of the match changed instantly; from that point on, Serena stopped missing, and Collins stopped swinging freely. Serena screamed again when she held for 2-4. She let out a “Come on!” when she hit a backhand winner to go up 0-30 in the next game. She won with great defense on a long rally at 3-4. She hit a swing-volley winner to go up love 0-40 on Collins’ serve at 4-4. And she came back from 0-30 down in the final game to hold. When she needed her serve at the end, it was there.
“That felt really good for me,” Serena aid when she was asked about her second-set comeback. “Things were not going my way. It’s not like she gave me those games. I had to earn it and turn it around. That was really positive for me going into the next match.”
Rather than thinking about winning the tournament, Serena seems happy simply to be competing and winning matches at the moment.
“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.”
“Nobody else is Serena out here. It’s me. It’s pretty cool.”
No one will argue with that. But Serena also recognizes that nothing will come easily in the second week. She’ll play Elena Rybakina next and, if she wins, either Pavlyuchenkova or Victoria Azarenka.
“There’s still a lot of matches, a lot of great players, as we can see,” Serena said. “There’s so much depth in this game now, it doesn’t matter if you’re playing in the first round or not, you really have to fight for every match and nothing comes easy.”
No. 24, in other words, is still a ways off. Serena won’t be able to afford extended dips in play in the second week; but at the same time, she knows that she can still rely on her legendary willpower to dig herself of a hole.
“They want to win,” Serena said of her younger opponents these days. “Then they have nothing to lose. They just are hitting lines. You have to just realize that you can hit the lines, too.”