PARIS (Reuters) - The on-court rivalry is so lop-sided it can barely be described as such yet Serena Williams’ French Open fourth-round clash with Maria Sharapova on Monday feels like the biggest match played on the women’s Tour this year.
Not just because Williams looks capable of landing a 24th Grand Slam title against all the odds having returned from maternity leave and Sharapova is seeking redemption after a 15-month doping ban with a third French Open title.
But because no match-up in a women’s field packed with potential Grand Slam winners provides the “edge” that is so apparent whenever the two spiky old warriors face each other across a tennis net.
It has been missing for two-and-a-half years, since Williams extended her domination of Sharapova to 19-2 with an Australian Open quarter-final victory that proved more significant than anyone could have imagined at the time.
Sharapova was found to have taken meldonium, a recently banned heart drug, and was slapped with a suspension by the International Tennis Federation (ITF).
Sharapova’s comeback is more advanced, having returned to the Tour, with modest success, 12 months ago although this is her first French Open since 2015, having been snubbed by organisers last year and not handed a wildcard.
Williams, 36, has played only a handful of matches this year but the three-times French Open champion has looked so dangerous in her black bodysuit in Paris that she seems capable of defying conventional wisdom and reclaiming the title.
Sharapova spoke of her rivalry with Williams extensively in her autobiography last year.
A little too much, according to Williams who offered a thoughts on the subject on Saturday.
“I didn’t expect to be reading a book about me, that wasn’t necessarily true,” she said, after a dazzling display against 11th seed Julia Goerges.
Sharapova, who stunned Williams in the 2004 Wimbledon final but has not beaten her for 14 years, had written: “Serena hated me for being the skinny kid who beat her, against all odds, at Wimbledon. Hated me for seeing her at her lowest moment. But mostly I think she hated me for hearing her cry. She’s never forgiven me for it.”
So expect the roars and fist-pumps to have a little extra intensity on Court Philippe Chatrier on Monday when the pressure will surely sit more heavily on Sharapova.
After 18 defeats in a row to Williams and losing the last 16 sets they have contested she might never have a better chance to strike a blow — a point Williams, ranked a laughable 451st in the world, raised after her third-round win.
“She’s probably a favourite in this match,” Williams said. “I’m just really trying to get my bearings and trying to feel out where I am and see where I can go.”
Former men’s champion Mats Wilander also gives Sharapova the edge after watching her destroy sixth seed Karolina Pliskova — but says past bashings may still haunt her.
“I would say this is most probably Maria Sharapova’s biggest chance in a very long time to beat Serena Williams,” Wilander, hosting Eurosport’s flagship Game, Schett and Mats show in Paris, told Reuters.
“Maria has won here twice and her claycourt is really good at the moment. You would assume Serena’s not at her best.
“But how much mental scar tissue, how much baggage does Maria Sharapova carry with her on court. If she cannot manage to win a set in this match then you know it has nothing to do with the physical side.”
(This version of the story was corrected to remove incorrect reference to Williams winning the Australian Open title in 2016 in paragraph five)
Reporting by Martyn Herman, editing by Ed Osmond