Week 1 is in the books for the bottom half of the draw at Roland Garros, where three-time champion Serena Williams remains as the highest seed. Is No.24 in the cards in Paris? WTA Insider has the main takeaways from a week that saw the American great show she is up to the challenge.
Serena is getting what she needs
It's an overused tennis cliché: It's a process. But that doesn't mean it's not true. In fact, it usually means it is.
Serena Williams knows what it takes to win Roland Garros. She's done it three times in her career, in 2002, 2013 and 2015. But Paris presents a different challenge for the American great. Of her 23 majors, "only" three have come at the French Open. While she has routinely gone into her two most successful majors - Wimbledon and the Australian Open - without playing any matches in the lead-up, clay requires acclimation.
Serena played just three matches - a straight-set loss in Rome to Nadia Podoroska, and then in Parma, a win over Italian teenager Lisa Pigato and a loss to Katerina Siniakova.
"Maybe I do need a few more matches, so I'm going to try to figure that out with my coach and my team and see what we would like to do," Serena told reporters in Rome before taking a wildcard into Parma. "I have been training for months, but it feels definitely different on clay to make that last adjustment.
"I usually don't take this much time off on a clay-court season, so usually I play like a Charleston or a Madrid or somewhere. So my season doesn't usually start this late on clay. But the training isn't for nothing, so I know that it's just a matter of time."
Now into the second week of Roland Garros, Serena has three solid matches under her belt. We've seen her play herself into form time after time over her career. There's never a reason to think she can't do it again.
"Today in particular, this whole week thus far, I just needed a win," Serena said after her third-round win Friday at the French Open. "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."
Serena heads into Week 2 battle-tested
Through her three wins, over No.74 Irina-Camelia Begu, No.148 Mihaela Buzarnescu and No.50 Danielle Collins, Serena has lost just one set. But each match has tested her in different ways, and she has responded incredibly well.
Against Begu in the first round, Serena was leading 5-2 in the opening set before Begu came back and served for the set at 6-5. Serena stepped up to break and force a tiebreak, where she wiped out two set points and ultimately steal back the set. She would go on to win 7-6(6), 6-2.
With a tricky lefty game, Buzarnescu was the first to take a set off Serena. While Serena enjoyed a good serving day in her second-round match against Buzarnescu, the Romanian took the second set 7-5 after Serena let multiple chances to break go to waste. But again, Serena responded with no self-pity, only determination. Into the deciding set, she raced out to a 4-0 lead and finished it off with a 6-3, 5-7, 6-1 victory.
Finally, against Collins in the third round on Friday, Serena found her best tennis of the clay season to hold off her compatriot. After taking a competitive first set, Serena found herself down 1-4 in the second as Collins showcased her canny point construction. This time, Serena didn't let things go to a third set. Her movement became more explosive and her corner defense unbreakable. She found another level of intensity in her groundstrokes. The result? Five straight games to cross the finish line with a 6-4, 6-4 win and a return to the Round of 16 in Paris.
"Yeah, that felt really good for me," Serena said after the win. "Things were not going my way. It's not like she gave me those games. I had to earn it and turn it around. That was really positive for me going into the next match.
"Was it my best match of the week? I don't know. I felt that I needed to be really focused way a lot in this match because she's playing really well.
"I've had a rough clay-court season thus far, so I'm happy to get some wins on the clay."
Azarenka, Badosa emerge as prime challengers
With Friday's loss by No.3 seed Aryna Sabalenka, Serena is the highest seed remaining in the bottom half of the draw. Who are likely to be her biggest challengers?
If No.21 seed Elena Rybakina can channel the form that made her the hottest player on tour before last spring's pandemic shutdown, she could have the weapons to bother the American in their Round of 16 duel. But the 21-year-old has been struggling since Australia, and her Week 1 wins over No. 493 Elsa Jaquemot, No.82 Nao Hibino and No.144 Elena Vesnina were her first trio of consecutive wins since the first week of the season.
Only three players in the bottom half Round of 16 have made it to a Slam semifinal: Serena, Victoria Azarenka and Marketa Vondrousova. All three have done so in Paris, with Serena, Azarenka (a 2013 semifinalist) and Vondrousova (a 2019 finalist).
On experience alone, Azarenka emerges as a Week 2 threat. The former No.1 has struggled all season with injury, but after three weeks of pain-free practice ahead of Roland Garros, the two-time major champion has tallied good wins over Svetlana Kuznetsova, Lyon champion Clara Tauson and Madison Keys. Azarenka is the only player in the bottom half to have beaten Serena. The most recent victory came last fall in the semifinals of the US Open.
On form, it's Spain Paula Badosa who is the standout of the bottom half. The 23-year-old now has a tour-leading 16-2 on clay this season and has won 12 of her past 13 matches, and that loss came to No.1 Ashleigh Barty in Madrid. In her first true test of the tournament, Badosa showed steely composure and maturity to save match point to defeat Ana Bogdan, 2-6, 7-6(4), 6-4 in the best-quality match of the tournament so far.
Then again, as Badosa will tell you, sometimes the numbers go out the window on the WTA Tour.
"When you have more expectations, people expect that you win that matches like you're favorite in that moment," Badosa said. "So it's tough. The thing is that you saw today, when a girl, Ana, she's 100 in the world, but today she played like Top 20, Top 10 match.
"So you never know. You never know, and you never know that maybe a top player plays a little bit worse that day. Today she played amazing. I'm prepared for every match, and expect that they can play like this."