Serena pushes regrets aside as Rybakina revels in statement win

American legend bows out of Roland-Garros after falling in straight sets in the fourth round on Sunday.

Serena Williams, Elena Rybakina, Roland Garros 2021, fourth round© Nicolas Gouhier/FFT
 - Alex Sharp

Serena Williams believes she is close to finding the formula back on the major stage.

The 23-time Grand Slam champion was knocked out of Roland-Garros, 6-3, 7-5 by the No.21 seed Elena Rybakina in the Roland-Garros last-16 stage on Sunday, in a first career meeting with the big-serving Kazakhstani.

Moments after the match, Williams hinted her Roland-Garros days are not over.

“Yeah, I'm definitely not thinking about it at all,” said the three-time champion with a grin when asked if this may have been her last match on Parisian clay. “I'm definitely thinking just about other things but not about that.”

Those thoughts could be circling around some of Williams' missed chances on Court Philippe-Chatrier on Sunday afternoon. The American three-time Paris champion erased an early break in the second set with nine successive points, swinging momentum into her direction.

Rybakina, however, was rock solid, tactically-astute as she whistled 21 winners past a perplexed Williams. 

“Yeah, I think I would have just played harder, just played better, I guess? I hate regretting, though,” stated the 39-year-old, insisting the margins were fine in her pursuit of a first Parisian quarter-final since 2016.

“It was definitely close. I'm so close. There is literally a point here, a point there, that could change the whole course of the match. I'm not winning those points.”

Rewind to 1998 and Williams reached the fourth round on her tournament debut, a year before Rybakina was born.

The 21-year-old, into uncharted territory in Grand Slam play, grew up watching Williams on TV and had always hoped to meet the legendary American in competition.

“I’m so happy with the match today. It's difficult to expect anything, because you watch on TV and that's completely different when you come on court and you feel the power and everything. I knew that the serve was going to be difficult for me to return,” reflected Rybakina, who blocked out the aura of facing Williams that so many succumb to.

“She's powerful, but I was ready. Then after few points I felt it comfortable, so nothing.”

The unfazed Rybakina advances to meet No.31 seed Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in the last eight, inspired by such a composed showing. Her win over Williams was her first over a top-10 player at a major, but her fifth overall.

She enters the quarter-finals as the women's ace leader for the tournament, having struck 23 through four matches.

“The end goal is always to win the tournaments and dream and go of course to win the Grand Slam. So every time I step in on court I try not to think against who I play,” added the Kazakhstani, yet to drop a set this fortnight.

“Just try to do my work, follow the plan which we have. If it works well, I'm winning, and if it's not, I'm just learning from the matches. It's all like experience for me.”

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

Williams has extensive experience across more than two decades as a professional in the sport, and despite falling short on Sunday, was relieved to gain some victories.

I'm in a much better place than when I got here. Just literally trying to win a match, because it had been a really difficult season for me on the clay. And although I love the clay, I was, like, ‘If I could just win a match,’” joked Serena.

Now it’s time for Williams to “regroup” as her chase for that elusive record-equalling 24th Grand Slam now moves to Wimbledon.

“I'm kind of excited to switch surfaces, but historically I have done pretty well on grass. I have done pretty well on clay too,” continued the seven-time Wimbledon winner. “Just not this particular season. I don't know. I don't think I'm going to play a warm-up.”

Meanwhile, Rybakina’s sharp focus remains at Roland-Garros.

“I also never played against her, and that's a bit strange because we also play doubles together. We are a good team, good atmosphere,” she said on facing Pavlyuchenkova, amused by responses to her unemotional reactions after stand-out wins. 

“I mean, everybody laughs about my reactions. Inside it's like a lot of different emotions. I'm really a calm person, but on top of this, all my nerves inside sometimes is good.

“Sometimes of course it's not, because to hold everything inside it's not possible. One day it's going to explode, so it's dangerous for other people, especially close ones. But of course, I was super happy, but I believed that I can do it, so the end goal is to win. I just try to forget now about this match and keep on focusing for another one.”

The world No.22 might have to get used to celebrating the big moments, the easy-power and precision which dispatched Williams is a warning sign to the rest of the field.