Meanwhile, 2015 U.S. Open finalist Roberta Vinci joined the list of first round casualties when she was crushed by Kateryna Bondarenko 6-1, 6-3. The way I look at it, those upsets left the women’s draw at least somewhat in disarray. A duel between Williams and Azarenka in the quarterfinals might have been immensely enticing, but that will not happen. A semifinal between Williams and Kerber would have been a rematch of the Australian Open final, which the left-handed German took in three exhilarating sets to claim her first major crown. Watching these two women with such contrasting styles competing in the penultimate round was a mouth watering prospect, but we have lost out on that exciting possibility.
Given all of this early upheaval, the belief here is that Serena Williams needs to keep moving through the draw, to be around for the latter stages of the tournament, to make her presence known. To be sure, as I write this column, there remain a number of other highly accomplished contenders for the world’s premier clay court championship. They include two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova, seeded tenth at this event. The No. 6 seed Simona Halep got to the final of Roland Garros two years ago, and nearly toppled Maria Sharapova before gallantly losing in three very hard fought and well played sets. Maybe, just maybe, Halep can rise to this occasion and garner her first major title in the process. The 2015 Wimbledon finalist Garbine Muguruza has advanced to the third round in Paris, and she is a formidable player on any surface, not to mention a woman who seems to relish the auspicious occasions. Put her into any “Big Four” tennis tournament, and Muguruza can get great things done.
To be sure, though, Williams is the central figure in the field, looking to make history of a high order by moving into a second place tie alongside Steffi Graf on the all time list of women’s major tournament winners with 22 titles, hoping to make amends for arduous losses in her last two Grand Slam events against Vinci in the semifinals of the U.S. Open and Kerber in Melbourne. She has commenced this edition of the French Open as forcefully and effectively as she could have hoped would be the case. In the first round, she cast aside Magdalena Rybarikova 6-2, 6-0, and today she took apart a tougher adversary in Pereira by the scores of 6-2, 6-2.
Williams came out in a very determined frame of mind for her meeting with Pereira. She approached this appointment with seriousness and an air of serenity, as if she was saying, “There will be no nonsense today. I am going to be all business.” Williams gained the immediate break against the Brazilian at 15 with a forehand down the line winner behind her opponent. She went ahead 2-0 with a love hold, rolling a two-hander exquisitely crosscourt into a wide open space. Pereira had a brief glimmer of hope in the third game when she established a 40-15 lead, but a resolute Williams collected four points in a row to get the insurance break, surging to 3-0 on a run of four consecutive points, attacking at every opportunity.
The top seed held at love for 4-0, but Pereira, applying heavier topspin off both sides, displaying a larger sense of confidence, held on in the fifth game. The 27-year-old then broke Williams for the first and only time in the match. Serena rallied from 0-30 to 30-30 with consecutive aces, and then took a 40-30 lead. But Pereira took advantage of a pulled backhand wide from the 34-year-old American. Back to deuce, Pereira played two fine points in a row to close the gap to 4-2.
In the seventh game, Pereira went to 40-30, but thoroughly miscalculated there. Stationed at the net, Pereira thought Serena’s forehand passing shot was going long. Rather than try and play a volley, Pereira let the ball go. Much to her chagrin, the high trajectory topspin shot from Serena landed inside the baseline for a winner. Williams eventually broke for 5-2, and then held at 15 to seal the 6-2 set in 33 efficient minutes.
Williams broke for 1-0 in the second set on a cleanly struck backhand return winner down the line. She held at 15 for 2-0, but then Pereira held for 1-2 with an ace T. That would be the last game she would win. Williams went right back to work, serving an ace for 40-15 in the following game, holding at 15 for 3-1. Pereira fought hard in the next game through three deuces, but to no avail. Williams added weight and depth to her returns, and advanced to 4-1. She held at 15 in the sixth game, and broke again to close out the 6-2, 6-1 account with conviction.
A year ago, Williams was forced into three set confrontations in five of her seven matches, but still managed to claim her third crown at Roland Garros. The view here is that she is a decidedly improved clay court player. Prior to 2013, she had only once captured the French Open (way back in 2002), but now she has become increasingly comfortable on the red clay as she competes at the renowned Paris site for the 15th time in her illustrious career. The 2016 campaign for Williams has been disjointed in many ways. This is only her fifth tournament appearance of the entire season, and her triumph in Rome a few weeks ago was her first title run since Cincinnati last summer.
There will inevitably be some stern tests for the defending champion over the rest of this fortnight. Her relative lack of match play compared to the other top players could be a disadvantage, perhaps a serious one, maybe leading to a surprising defeat. But the fact remains that she seems to be approaching the top of her game at precisely the right time. I maintain my belief that she will win her fourth French Open.