Williams v Buzarnescu: Things we learned

 - Dan Imhoff

Triple Roland-Garros champion sees off second Romanian in succession to reach third round

Serena Williams, Roland-Garros 2021 second round©️ Nicolas Gouhier/FFT

Serena Williams has never been the type to baulk at the grind.

Even having watched in disbelief as a gritty Romanian doctor of sports science, Mihaela Buzarnescu, snuck back into their second-round contest on Wednesday, the 39-year-old knew she must stand her ground.

The three-time Roland-Garros champion dodged what would have become her biggest Grand Slam upset defeat to reach the third round 6-3, 5-7, 6-1. Here’s what we learned from the battle.

Numbers don't always tell the story

For 174th-ranked Buzarnescu, it shaped as a particularly lofty summit to scale.

The 33-year-old from Bucharest was not a total unknown, having cracked the top 20 almost three years ago and with a career-best run to the fourth round in Paris.

But it had been slim pickings since. Buzarnescu was bidding to land back-to-back main draw wins for the first time since September 2019, while she had not won a match in 2020 before her defeat of Arantxa Rus in the opening round.

Williams had been beaten only twice in 75 Grand Slam second-round clashes – to sister Venus Williams at the 1998 Australian Open and seven years ago at Roland-Garros to Garbine Muguruza.

Had Buzarenscu carried the momentum switch to the finish line she would have well and truly eclipsed 111th-ranked Virginie Razzano from nine years ago as the lowest-ranked player to send off Williams at a major.

“It was good competition. She was playing well and I was playing well,” Williams said on court. “I feel like she was just hitting winners and there was a point that was just so long and it was kind of fun so you know.

“It's always good when you enjoy your job, you smile, which is rare for me. I love my job but I don't smile too much on the court but I was very excited to just be out here.”

Serve comes to the rescue

While not as dominant as it can be, the Williams serve dug her out of a tight spot on many occasion on Wednesday.

Williams, seeded seventh, had already blown out the cobwebs in the first round against the Romanian’s compatriot, Irina-Camilia Begu, after two of her three matches coming into Paris ended in defeat.

She was mortified at her serve in that outing but having finished up winning 75 per cent of her first-serve points against Buzarnescu, there was cause for optimism.

“I felt it was pretty good today. But I've been practising my serve a lot,” Williams said. “I've been playing in practice unbelievable on my serve. The other night was, wow. I'm glad it came better today. My coach told me it's good that I'm doing it well in practice because eventually it will be good in the match.

“I had some really good chances in the second set to win that if I would have won just one point here or there, like four or five times, it would have been a different second set.

“I know going into the third I just had to zero in on those one important points. If I could just take those, it would be an easier time for me.”

Serena Williams, Roland Garros 2021, second round© Nicolas Gouhier/FFT

Mihaela up to task

Injuries had wreaked havoc on the Romanian’s career and it was during a near two-year stint on the sidelines in 2013 and 2014 that she completed her PhD. in sport science.

Buzarnescu did not even contest her first Grand Slam main draw until she qualified for the 2017 US Open.

Win or lose, this would go down as a one of her career highlights, a dream fulfilled on one of the grandest stages in her sport.

“It was like a dream for a long time to play against her, because since I was young I was following her and her sister. Was always like a goal to play against such a legend,” she said.

“I'm really proud and happy that she is showing to the world that you can play in a very good level at this age… I have always said that no matter what age you are, as long as you feel so well on the court and you want to play tennis, just play until you're the one who decides. For me, it shows that you can do it.”

Mihaela Buzarnescu, Roland-Garros 2021 second round©️ Nicolas Gouhier/FFT

Compatriot looms large

Williams will take on her fellow American Danielle Collins for a place in the fourth round. The seventh seed narrowly held off the 27-year-old – who returned in Paris after surgery for endometriosis – at the Yarra Valley Classic in Melbourne to start her season.

The only seed left she could run into before the quarter-finals is No.21 Elena Rybakina in the fourth round.

“She plays well, especially when it's time to play, which is I guess all the time,” Williams said of Collins. “She's also a really awesome person off the court. I love seeing her in the locker-room. Ideally it would be great if we didn't have to play each other, because I always want her to do super well.”