Title hopes rising for Serena

 - Chris Oddo

American No.7 seed overcomes a second-set rough patch against Collins to move into the last 16

Serena Williams, Roland Garros 2021, third round© Cédric Lecocq/FFT

Now that she’s the only top-10 player left in her half of the Roland-Garros women’s singles draw, 23-time Grand Slam champion Serena Williams has emerged in pole position to make a run at the title in Paris. 

On the same day that saw No.3 seed Aryna Sabalenka bounced out of the draw, Williams revved up her engine and raced past compatriot Danielle Collins 6-4, 6-4, to set a last-16 clash with hard-serving Elena Rybakina, the No.21 seed from Kazakhstan. 

Collins, ranked 50 and playing her first event since having a surgery to remove a tennis ball-sized growth from her uterus due to Endometriosis, has been an inspiration in Paris, and she brought her trademark fire to face Williams on Friday.

The 2020 quarter-finalist hit 18 winners against Williams, but could not stop her from roaring into the fourth round.

"That's the joy of being Serena," the No.7 seed said after the match. "I have to always be at my A-game or else I won't be able to take it - so I always need to play good."

Williams, a three-time champion on the red clay of Roland-Garros, is never one to be counted out, but her lukewarm lead-up to Paris left some wondering if she would find her form in time to be a factor in a field loaded with clay-court talent. 

The American legend played just two events on clay this spring, and won only once - against world No.572 Lisa Pigato of Italy - before taking her place in the main draw this week. 

Williams has always been a whiz at playing herself into form at the Grand Slams, but some worried that the task may prove too difficult in Paris.

"I've had a rough clay-court season thus far, so I'm happy to get some wins on the clay," Williams admitted after the match.

Serena Williams Roland Garros 2021©Cédric Lecocq / FFT

Rallying back

The victory over Collins was by no means simple, but Williams can take comfort in the fact that she was able to respond after a very loose patch of four games in the second set, in which she double-faulted breaks away twice and generally lost her rhythm. 

Mired in a four-game slump, Williams pumped her fist at the baseline and chastised herself after the second point of the sixth game of the set, trailing 1-4. 

“Move your feet, Serena!” she exclaimed. 

Williams caught fire from there, reeling off the final five games to dispatch Collins, completing her 69th career Roland-Garros victory in one hour and 25 minutes. 

“We started seeing the emotion and the reaction from Serena more often,” Tennis Channel analyst Lindsay Davenport said while commentating the match. “She knew she needed to change everything.”

Lost and found

Asked about her ability to power out of a 4-1 deficit in the second set, Williams hinted that it was a ritual of self-discovery for her.

"I just needed a win," she said. "I needed to win tough matches. I needed to win sets. I needed to win being down. I needed to find me, know who I am. Nobody else is Serena out here. It's me. It's pretty cool."

With the top three seeds already out of the tournament after three rounds, Williams' chances at hoisting the Coupe Suzanne-Lenglen for a fourth time next Saturday in Paris have risen.

It's not a new theme.

Williams has failed to win a title in her last eleven appearances at the Grand Slams, but she has given herself chances in most of them. The 39-year-old has played four major finals since she claimed her last Grand Slam title at the 2017 Australian Open, and reached the semi-finals two other times.

Serena Williams, Roland Garros 2021, third round© Cédric Lecocq/FFT

'So much depth in the game now'

At Roland-Garros, her fortunes have not been as good - Williams has not reached the quarter-finals since she was runner-up in Paris in 2016.

Her performance on Friday, and the disappearances of the top three seeds in the women's singles draw, will inspire belief that a Paris revival is in the cards. But Williams knows nothing comes for free at Roland-Garros.

"There's still a lot of matches, a lot of great players, as we can see," she said. "There's so much depth in this game now, it doesn't matter if you're playing in the first round or not, you really have to fight for every match and nothing comes easy."