PARIS – You could see it coming, the way Serena Williams was serving Sunday afternoon in her third-round doubles match with sister Venus.
She was just lobbing the ball in.
Some of the first serves barely broke 130 kilometres an hour.
And when she had the chance to crush a patented Serena smash, create a little intimidation, she passed on it.
So, an hour before she was to face rival Maria Sharapova in arguably the most highly anticipated match of the tournament Monday – men and women combined – Williams withdrew.
“I unfortunately have been having some issues with my pec, my pec muscle, and has unfortunately been getting worse to the point where right now I can’t actually serve. It’s kind of hard to play when I can’t physically serve,” Williams said, in a quickly-arranged press conference.
“The first time I felt it was against (Julia) Goerges in my last match. That’s when I started to feel it. I was, like, it was really painful and I didn’t know what it was.”
Williams tried various tape jobs and supports for the doubles match, which the Williams sisters lost, 6-0 in the third set, to No. 3 seeds Maria José Martínez Sánchez and Andreja Klepac.
The issues on her serve began to show mostly in the third set, in large part due to the fact that it being doubles, she only had to serve once every four games. And they were obvious, as we chronicled in this piece last night.
But she wanted to try. It wasn’t only because the sisters feel confident they can win a doubles title every time they enter. It also was an opportunity to test things out to see if there was a way she could manage the injury, in anticipation of the singles Monday.
“I gave up so much, from time with my daughter to time with my family. I put everything on the court, you know. All for this moment. So it’s really difficult to be in this situation, but I always, for now in my life, I just always try to think positive and just think of the bigger picture and hopefully the next events and the rest of the year,” Williams said.
“Yeah, it’s very difficult, because I love playing Maria. You know, it’s just a match I always get up for. You know, it’s just her game matches so well against mine,” she added. “I have made every sacrifice that I could. So it’s extremely disappointing. But also, I made a promise to myself and to my coach and to my team that if I’m not at least 60 per cent or 50 per cent, then I probably shouldn’t play. The fact that I physically can’t serve at all is a good indication that maybe I should just go back to the drawing board and stay positive and try to get better, and not get it to a point where it could be a lot worse.”
The 36-year-old said she had never had this type of injury before.
She plans to undergo an MRI and seek out specialists in Paris over the next few days, to determine the extent of the injury and see where she goes from here.
“I don’t really know how to manage it yet. Sadly, when you do have an injury that you have had before, you can kind of manage it. I have pretty much had every injury in the book. But this is a little different, and, yeah, I’m clueless as to what to do,” she said. “I’m just going to do what the doctor thinks I should do and get all the evaluations on it.”
Sharapova also disappointed
“I was looking forward to my match against Serena today and am disappointed that she had to withdraw. I wish her a speedy recovery and hope she returns to the tour soon,” Sharapova said in a statement.
The Russian now is into the quarterfinals of a Grand Slam for the first time since the 2016 Australian Open – the last Slam she played before her doping suspension and the tournament at which she tested positive for meldonium, which resulted in 15 months away from the game.
She’ll play the winner of the match between No. 3 seed Garbiñe Muguruza and unseeded Lesia Tsurenko.
The head-to-head between the two now stands at an asterisked 3-19. Sharapova’s only two complete victories came all the way back in 2004.
But given the unique circumstances at this French Open, it certainly felt as though the Russian had a better opportunity than she had enjoyed in a long while to eke out another victory.
With Williams playing her first major in nearly 18 months, only her third tournament since giving birth to daughter Olympia, the playing field had been evened a little. And Sharapova had clearly been rounding into form between her effort in Rome, and her matches so far in Paris.
Looking ahead to the grass
In retrospect, perhaps the doubles could have waited until Wimbledon.
But Williams thought getting some needed match play in would be worth the risk of pushing herself too hard physically.
Other than the pectoral issue, she said she had been feeling better and better physically.
“Every match has been getting better for me. Physically I’m doing great. You know, again, it hasn’t been easy. I sacrificed so much to be at this event. I can only take solace in the fact I’m going to continue to get better. And I had such a wonderful performance in my first Grand Slam back. I just feel like it’s only going to do better,” Williams said.
“And I’m coming up on hopefully surfaces that are my absolute favorite to play on and that I do best on. Hopefully I can continue to heal and be able to play those events.”