Debate: will Serena or Vika go further?

 - Kate Battersby and Dan Imhoff

Both are new mothers and both are unseeded. But who will fare better at RG18 - Williams or Azarenka?

Adding to the excitement of this year's women's draw at Roland-Garros is the return of two of the game's premier players.

Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka have not played in Paris since 2016; in that time, both have become mothers, and both are attempting to work their way back to the form that delivered them, at various times, the world No.1 ranking and multiple major titles.

Both are unseeded at Roland-Garros in 2018, with Williams having played only two events this year and Azarenka just four. Yet they are forever dangerous players the other women in the draw will hope to avoid.

The question is: with both lacking match play coming into the tournament, which of them will fare better?

Kate Battersby: My instinct says Serena. All right, so she’s ranked No.453 following the birth of her daughter Alexis Olympia last September. Sure, she hasn’t played a tournament since Miami in March, where she lost in the first round to Naomi Osaka, who was riding high from her Indian Wells triumph; and I know Serena pulled out of Rome and Madrid. But it’s precisely those latter withdrawals which signal her intent. She learned from Indian Wells not to play post-partum if she isn’t completely ready. The fact that she’s here means she’s all set.

Dan Imhoff: Serena spent the weekend letting her hair down and kicking up her heels – or trainers as it turns out – as she rubbed shoulders with a host of celebrities at the Royal Wedding. That’s not to say she’s not ready to begin her 15th Roland-Garros campaign next week, but maybe she’s enjoying escaping some of the grind of life on tour these days. Who’s to say that hunger has fully returned yet? Vika has had more time to get back in shape since the birth of her son Leo in December 2016, and a far different motivation, having been ready and able to play but trapped in the US in a custody dispute. While she has played just four events this season she has already pushed deep at a big tournament, reaching the semi-finals in Miami – something that can’t be said for Serena, yet – in a run which saw her return to the Top 100. In two clay-court events she hasn’t impressed to quite the same extent, winning her sole match in Madrid before falling to No.6 seed Karolina Pliskova in a tight three-setter. Still, it’s three more matches on the red dirt than Serena’s managed.

Victoria Azarenka smiling at practice Roland-Garros 2018 entraînement©Corinne Dubreuil / FFT

Battersby: But as Simona Halep has observed, the debate about women returning to the Tour from childbirth “is about so much more than tennis”. That principle will be fuelling Serena’s fire at Roland-Garros, where she has, after all, lifted the Coupe Suzanne-Lenglen three times, by comparison with Vika’s one semi-final in 2013. Not for nothing does Serena’s Twitter bio declare: “Working to help you.” Her stature as a 23-time Grand Slam champion gives her a unique platform as a women’s advocate, which she takes hugely seriously. Wearing trainers rather than crippling heels beneath her glorious Valentino gown at the Royal Wedding evening reception only proves it all the more – both by its delicious wit in the context of the occasion, and the recognition that renewed competitive combat was mere days away.

Imhoff: Renewed competitive combat that would last mere days, you mean? No less would that same principle fuel Vika’s fire, only further compounded by the fact she has been stuck in the US unable to play until Indian Wells but with ample time to work on her fitness. The timing of their comebacks is everything for both women and if this was not clay but another surface, where there are more cheap points on serve, I would say you could back Serena in making a deeper run, regardless of whether her fitness was back up to scratch. The kind of cardio needed to stick it out in longer rallies on clay gives Vika a clear advantage in being able to string together more matches back-to-back at this point in time.

Serena Williams et Patrick Mouratoglou entraînement / practice Roland-Garros 2018©Corinne Dubreuil / FFT

Battersby: Let’s be clear about this. Serena isn’t in Paris to make up the numbers. She has been diligently training, preparing and improving at Patrick Mouratoglou’s academy in the south of France, and he says she is playing Roland-Garros “to win it”, adding: “We decided to skip Rome and Madrid as she needed five weeks to be perfectly ready. Can she do it? Serena can achieve anything. After being her coach for six years, I’m even more sure of that statement.” Word from those who watched Serena practising on court here this week is that she is hitting the ball as hard as ever.

Imhoff: There would not be a single Grand Slam Serena Williams has entered lacking the belief she can win it. No one is doubting she can hit the ground running on zero match-play better than anyone – think back to her 2007 Australian Open triumph, ranked No.81. This is altogether different though. It’s just too soon for Serena, and it's the wrong surface on which to be rusty. Come the US Open, it would be no surprise to see these two women battling it out in the final. Here both will be unseeded and in this case that plays a huge factor when they’re short on match-play, as they’re at the mercy of the draw. One thing’s for certain: it is a welcome sight seeing both of them back in a Grand Slam draw. There is not a player in the women’s draw who will relish seeing their name next to either Vika or Serena.