Many gave Serena Williams no hope at Roland-Garros this year. Having taken time off after bowing out in the quarter-finals of the Australian Open, the US star returned to action less than a month ago and had won only once on clay in the build-up to the tournament.
Equally, the competition this year was expected to be fierce. An in-form Ashleigh Barty aiming to defend her French Open title from 2019. Another former winner and clay-court specialist in Simona Halep, and Naomi Osaka –– a player not always comfortable on the surface, who has nonetheless got the better of Williams at more than one major championship.
It seemed, therefore, that attention might be on Wimbledon instead –– a place Williams has excelled over the years, winning the competition on seven occasions.
But in Grand Slams, anything can occur. And, anything fortuitous that could have possibly happened to strengthen the 39-year-old’s odds has done so.
First Halep was ruled out. A calf injury sustained at the Italian Open required surgery and left the Romanian unable to recover in time. Then, earlier this week –– Osaka withdrew from the event for mental health reasons. Now, Barty is the latest high profile figure to leave the tournament, having retired against Magda Linette with a hip problem.
What this means is that the draw is quickly opening up advantageously for the 23-time major champion. 2020 winner Iga Świątek is the resounding favourite, yet Williams has no chance of facing the Polish teenager until the final.
The three-time Roland-Garros victor faces the unseeded Danielle Collins in round three. With Petra Kvitová also withdrawing through injury, either Elena Rybakina or Elena Vesnina lie in wait for round four.
The biggest obstacle stopping Williams from yet another Slam final is likely to be Aryna Sabalenka. The highest-ranked player left in the main draw, the Belarussian hasn’t dropped a set so far and could meet the American in the quarter-finals.
The world number eight is playing pretty well herself, though. Granted, she dropped a set in her last match and her serve seems relatively fragile, but that brilliant baseline power is still there.
If Williams can come through that test then the semi-final looks to be an easier challenge on paper. 20th seed Marketa Vondrousova is the top-ranked player left on that side of the draw and Spain’s Paula Badosa looks to be the main threat.
Of course, should a 34th major final beckon, then anything is possible. There is still a long way to go before this point, but as the top stars falter and Williams gets stronger, it looks to be increasingly more possible after all.