PARIS (CNN) — Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova meeting in the second week of a grand slam wouldn’t have come as a surprise a few years ago.
But when the world-famous duo landed in the same quarter of the draw at this year’s French Open, there was no guarantee they would clash in the fourth round.
Williams was playing her first grand slam in 16 months and only her third tournament of 2018 after giving birth to daughter Olympia in September, while Sharapova dealt with an arm injury this year and still sought top form after returning from a drug suspension in April 2017.
Yet the pair will face off indeed for the 22nd time after both won Saturday (June 2) at Roland Garros.
Struggling somewhat in the opening two rounds, both put in their best performances of the fortnight on a sunny, warm day in Paris that was a complete contrast to Friday’s wet, heavy conditions.
On paper, anyway, they were upset victories.
Williams — her ranking down to 451st due to a lack of matches since winning the 2017 Australian Open in the early stages of pregnancy — defeated 11th-seed Julia Goerges 6-3 6-4 Saturday evening.
The 23-time grand slam champ faced a mere one break point and tallied 85% of her first-serve points. Sharapova thumped sixth-seed Karolina Pliskova 6-2 6-1 in the afternoon, winning nearly 60% of her return points versus last year’s women’s ace leader.
Monday, though, comes the hard part for 28th-seed Sharapova, no doubt the toughest challenge of her career — trying to beat Williams.
Sharapova trails the series 19-2 and last overcame the American in 2004.
Sixteen straight sets have gone against her, including in the quarterfinals at the 2016 Australian Open, Sharapova’s last match prior to serving the ban for taking meldonium.
“I think any time you play against Serena you know what you’re up against,” the five-time grand slam winner told reporters. “You know the challenge that is upon you.
“Despite the record that I have against her, I always look forward to coming out on the court and competing against the best player.”
A cliche it isn’t.
Sharapova is one of tennis’ finest ever competitors and relishes such combats.
Her smile after finishing off 2017 semifinalist Pliskova confirmed how much she enjoys playing tennis when — like Williams — she could retire with plenty in the bank and focus on her business interests.
The problem for Sharapova is that Williams is an even better competitor with greater weapons.
They wouldn’t be considered pals but Sharapova admitted to being “inspired” by her on-court tormentor. Their path to stardom from humble beginnings is also inspiring, according to Sharapova.
Born in Siberia, Russia, Sharapova moved to the US at a young age to chase her tennis dream. Williams and older sister Venus grew up in Compton in the 1980s at a time when gang warfare was not uncommon in the Los Angeles suburb.
Sharapova ‘inspired’ by Serena
“I think if you add all the things that we’re able to do in our lives and the amounts of people that we’re able to inspire from our stories, from our background, where we came from, kind of what we have been able to do outside the sport, in our own ways, I think is very inspiring,” Sharapova told reporters.
“I’m inspired a lot by what she’s been able to do.”
Many have also been inspired by Petra Kvitova, who returned to the tennis tour at the French Open last year after being attacked in her home at the end of 2016.
Despite suffering nerve damage to her left, playing hand, Kvitova entered the French Open as a contender thanks to clay titles in Prague and Madrid.
But the twice Wimbledon winner joined her Czech Fed Cup teammate Pliskova on the sidelines, losing to Anett Kontaveit 7-6 (8-6) 7-6 (7-4) in a match originally scheduled for Friday.
Seeded 25th, Kontaveit had a fruitful clay swing herself and a breakthrough win at a grand slam had been coming after several near misses.
Kvitova, whose 13-match win streak concluded, was the highest profile name to exit.
“Of course, I’m pretty sad, but, on the other hand, I’m very happy about everything in the life,” she said.
Rafael Nadal, meanwhile, achieved yet another milestone on clay.
When the Spaniard again crushed France’s Richard Gasquet, 6-3 6-2 6-2 — he is now 16-0 against his friend — he claimed a 34th straight set at Roland Garros to eclipse his previous best of 32.
Nadal is now not far behind Bjorn Borg’s record of 41 set from 1979-81.
German next for Nadal
He will be expected to win in straight sets again Monday when he takes on the rising, but little known, German Maximilian Marterer. The two other highest seeds in Nadal’s half, Marin Cilic and Juan Martin del Potro, didn’t conceded a set, either, in dispatching Steve Johnson and Albert Ramos Vinolas, respectively.
Camila Giorgi twice couldn’t serve out proceedings against US Open winner Sloane Stephens, with the American advancing 4-6 6-1 8-6.
Based on the first three rounds, 2016 winner Garbine Muguruza might be the player to beat in the women’s draw. A Spanish double in the final weekend, perhaps?
Having downed fellow French Open champion Svetlana Kuznetsova in her opener, Muguruza eased past former finalist Sam Stosur 6-0 6-2.
Simona Halep, like Kvitova, was pushed back to Saturday because of the rain. The world No. 1 topped Andrea Petkovic 7-5 6-0 in a repeat of their 2014 semifinal.
Halep went on to lose a thrilling final to Sharapova and is still bidding for a first major, coming close again 12 months ago and at January’s Australian Open. Petkovic has fallen on harder times — ranked 107th — and the philosophical German admitted to almost quitting the game.