Serena Williams’ chances of glory at this year’s Roland Garros were boosted yesterday, when rivals Angelique Kerber and Victoria Azarenka exited the draw at the first hurdle. Australian Open champion and number 3 seed Kerber was beaten in three sets by Kiki Bertens in an upset, whilst 5th seed Azarenka was forced to retire from the third set of her encounter with Karin Knapp with an agonising knee injury.
They joined 7th seed Roberta Vinci – Serena’s conqueror at last year’s US Open – who was convincingly beaten on Monday by Kateryna Bondarenko, to continue a collapse of top seeds in the women’s competition.
The early departures of Azarenka, Kerber and Vinci should make life easier for defending French Open champion and No. 1 seed Williams, as all three rivals had potentially lay ahead in her half of the draw. Serena began the defense of her title on Tuesday with a routine 6-2, 6-0 win over Magdalena Rybarikova and will next face unheralded Brazilian Teliana Pereira in the second round. With other top seeds Agnieszka Radwanska, Garbine Muguruza and Simona Halep in the other half of the draw, a route to the final now appears much clearer.
With the premature exits of Kerber and Azarenka, this year’s tournament in Paris could now prove to be a vitally important element in Serena’s quest of overhauling Steffi Graf’s slam tally. Graf has won more Grand Slams than any woman in the Open era with 22, a record that Serena has been trying to equal since she notched her 21st at last year’s Wimbledon. However since Serena’s last victory at SW19, being able to draw level with Graf has proved to be problematic. Surpassing that feat can’t be entertained just yet, given Serena’s inability thus far to secure major number 22.
The American was shockingly beaten by Vinci in the US Open semi-finals last September and at this season’s opening slam in Australia, lost 6-4 3-6 6-4 in a thrilling final to Kerber, with the German claiming her first Grand Slam crown. At 34, the window of opportunity for Serena to win too many more slams may well be closing. Father Time is after all undefeated, as testified by Roger Federer’s withdrawal from this year’s Roland Garros in order to rest.
If she were to be asked, Serena will no doubt say something along the lines of, “There’s no pressure, I’m just enjoying my tennis right now.” But whether she feels it or not, with Kerber, Azarenka and Vinci gone there is added pressure for her to deliver against her ultimate goal. The pressure she puts on herself may well have been her downfall at Flushing Meadows and in Melbourne.
The crater that has been blown in her side of the draw at Roland Garros will surely have an effect one way or another come the competition’s second week, so can she capitalise, to set up a shot at breaking Graf’s record on grass – her favourite surface – in July?