Order of Play: Thursday 31 May
Serena Williams faces the first true test of her Grand Slam comeback in the form of 17th seed Ashleigh Barty.
After Serena’s triumphant return to Roland-Garros, now for her first real test. Just three times the 23-time Grand Slam champion has faced a seeded player in the first two rounds of a major, and she’s won all three. Could Australian No.17 seed Ashleigh Barty, who posted the best clay-court season of her career en route to Paris, buck the trend?
The roles were reversed in the first round of Australian Open 2014, the duo’s only previous meeting, when Barty was the low-ranked wildcard and Williams the top seed. The American made light work of the then-teenager, who quit the sport that same year and briefly pursued a cricket career. Since her return in 2016, the Aussie has allied her quick wits and soft hands with a far more attack-minded outlook to become a threat to any opponent on her day.
Form coming in
Serena’s clay-court form is simple enough – played one, won one, and in comfortable fashion over Kristyna Pliskova. In truth, however, we will learn more about her form and fitness against a player with the guile to use the whole court as expertly as the Aussie. Barty’s solid build-up ended on a bittersweet note when she was forced to withdraw from her first clay-court semi-final in Strasbourg with back spasms, but there was little cause for further concern during her straight-sets win over Natalia Vikhlyantseva.
The duo meet for the first time in Paris, where Williams is a three-time champion and Barty has never been beyond the second round. Serena’s record at Roland-Garros in recent years makes for interesting reading: in her last five appearances, she has reach three finals, winning two, but also twice lost before the third round.
Spin, angles, changes of pace – Barty will employ every aspect of her multi-faceted game to deny Williams the chance to find her rhythm. But while she is a more explosive player than the 17-year-old Serena met in Melbourne four years ago, she still cannot compete with the 23-time Grand Slam champion in the power stakes. Williams will look to dictate from the baseline – inside when possible – and answer Barty’s questions in no uncertain terms.
It’s the battle of the debutant southpaws: Canada’s newly-minted No.1 Denis Shapovalov versus promising German Maximilian Marterer. The world No.70 recently reached his first ATP semi-final on home turf – or more correctly, clay – in Munich, falling to compatriot Philipp Kohlschreiber, and is impressing on his second Grand Slam debut of the season, having reached the third round at the Australian Open in January. But if the 22-year-old is starting to come good, his 19-year-old opponent is increasingly looking like the real deal: fine wins over Milos Raonic and Kyle Edmund propelled Shapovalov to the Madrid Open semi-finals and the world’s top 30 earlier this month as he looks increasingly comfortable on clay.
The Czech duo meet for a second Slam running, with Pliskova having extended her head-to-head lead over Safarova to 6-2 following victory in the third round of the Australian Open. The No.6 seed will start as the favourite against her Fed Cup teammate after a recent nine-match winning streak on clay that landed the Stuttgart title and a victory over world No.1 Simona Halep in Madrid before she fell in the semi-finals. However, former Roland-Garros finalist Safarova has won two of their three previous meetings on clay. It’s been another season blighted by illness and injury for the 31-year-old, who missed the Sunshine Double and most of the clay season while recovering from a virus picked up in Dubai. Can she spring an upset to set up a potential rematch of the 2015 final with Serena?