Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova were due meet for the 22nd time at Roland Garros on Monday in the fourth round, the first time the former world number ones have been drawn against each other so early at a tournament since Wimbledon in 2010, but the American great was forced to withdraw from the tournament with an arm injury, she announced just before the match.
"I've had issues with the right pectoral muscle to the point where I can't serve," Williams told reporters. "I'll have a scan. I won't know about Wimbledon until I get the results."
On their last encounter, in the 2016 Australian Open quarter-finals, seeded first and fifth respectively, Williams blew her long-time adversary off the court for the loss of just five games. And then Sharapova's career took an even more damaging off-court blow. Shortly after the tournament, the Russian was found to have been taking meldonium for several years, a previously legitimate substance that Sharapova said was prescribed for a heart condition and that had found its way onto the list of ITF prohibited substances at the turn of the same year. Sharapova by her own admission failed to read the email and was subsequently banned for two years, reduced to 15 months on appeal.
Williams has also taken an extended break from the game to give birth to her first child and returned to action earlier this season at Indian Wells. Going into the French Open, the 2002, 2013 and 2015 champion had just four games under her belt and had yet to win a set in 2018. In a week on the Paris clay, unseeded and ranked 451 in the world, she has dropped just one, to 17th seed Ashleigh Barty in the second round and saw off the in-form world number 11 Julia Görges in straight sets in her next game. However, Williams, who said she was not quite ready to return in Rome two weeks before Roland Garros, was forced to put another meeting with her old foe on hold on Monday.
Sharapova will have to wait for another crack at nemesis Serena
Sharapova has had more than a year to claw her way back to number 30 and reached the quarter-finals in Madrid and the semi-finals in Rome before the second major of the season. In her previous game at Roland Garros, Sharapova dropped just three games in a rout of sixth seed Karolina Pliskova. The Czech is among those players who will be happy to shake the last of the red dirt from her shoes this week but she is also no pushover and the result suggested that Sharapova, the 2012 and 2014 champion, has finally tapped into her optimum form.
Whether that would have been sufficient to overturn a 19-2 career head-to-head against the American major machine, recently described by Roger Federer as the greatest female athlete of all time, will have to wait for another day but the court had not been on such an even keel for the Russian since her last victory over Williams at the 2004 WTA Championships.
Her only other success against Williams came earlier in the same year at Wimbledon when a relatively unknown 17-year-old Sharapova stunned the defending champion 6-1, 6-4 with a shattering display of power-hitting that was almost replicated a couple of days ago on Court Philippe Chartier in a 59-minute blitz.
Sharapova will face either Garbiñe Muguruza or Lesia Tsurenko in the quarter-finals.