It was good to have them back

 - Alix Ramsay

Serena and Maria: at the age of 36 and 31, enjoy them while they are still around.

Serena Williams Maria Sharapova 3e tour Roland-Garros 3rd round.

It was good to have them back. After two years without them both eyeing each other up from opposite ends of the locker room, scowling at each other from opposite ends of the court, it was strangely reassuring to see them both back at Roland-Garros.

That the great fourth round showdown between Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova never actually happened due to Serena’s pectoral injury did not really matter. Of course, it was a huge disappointment for the ticket holders and the television companies but the fact that they had both reached the second week of a Grand Slam, that they were both playing well, was enough good news to be going on with. The rest of the year suddenly looked more exciting.

Sharapova, a long and frustrating return

Maria’s return from a 15-month doping ban has been long and frustrating. She has been back on tour for more than a year now and during that time there have been flashes of the old champion – her match with Eugenie Bouchard in Madrid last year, her defeat of Simona Halep in the first round of the US Open – but there was no consistency. For every decent result, there would be another first round loss. And then she hit the clay courts of Europe.

The quarterfinals in Madrid. The semifinals in Rome. And then an absolute flattening of Karolina Pliskova at Roland-Garros to set up that date with Serena. That lit up the Twittersphere and had the sports editors salivating.

Serena: Roland-Garros, the official start of her comeback

Serena, meanwhile, had already stolen the limelight as only she can. She had made a couple of attempts to return from maternity leave earlier in the year but she was not physically and mentally ready. Her arrival in Paris, then, was to be the official start of her comeback. Now she meant business.

Her first match, though, was memorable only for her outfit – that black catsuit was a showstopper. But she was sluggish, rusty and a shadow of her former self. Still, she found a way to beat Kristyna Pliskova and moved carefully on. And then, after losing the first set to Ash Barty, the real Serena emerged. 

That terrifying competitor elbowed her way to the fore (forget all thoughts of motherhood mellowing the former world No.1; Serena and her roar were back) and it was game on. Barty was dispatched and Julia Goerges was demolished in the next round. The champion was ready for anyone and anything, or she was until her serving arm started playing up and she was forced to pull out.

No matter, Serena had stated her intent. Nine months after having her daughter, and after all the medical issues she endured following the birth, she was as hungry as ever. If her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, doubted her motivation before, he certainly didn’t now.

"Now I don’t doubt at all that her motivation level is the maximum I’ve seen"

“To be completely honest a few months ago I was doubting it,” he said. “Now I don’t doubt at all that her motivation level is the maximum I’ve seen. That might sound strange, but for her to come back is a big thing, it’s an incredible effort, she’s a mum, she wants to spend time with her family, she’s happy with that life.

“In a way she has to – not put that on one side because obviously she spends a lot of time with her family, but she has to devote a lot of time and change her life for tennis. If she does it, it’s because she definitely wants it more than anything. If you would have seen how hard she has worked the last five weeks, you would have no doubts about her motivation. She has worked harder than I’ve seen her work ever.”

She did not have to work on her off-court performance, though. That came naturally. 

Serena-Maria, the rivalry

As the big showdown approached, the two megastars stared each other down from the press conference room. Like two heavyweights before a title bout, they had their round of trash talking (ever so politely, you understand). Serena’s put down to Maria over her book “Unstoppable” and the many, many descriptions of their rivalry was classic: “I didn't know she looked up to me that much,” she said without missing a beat. Serena won that one on a points decision.

Wimbledon, injury permitting, is Serena’s big goal. When she discovered she was expecting a baby, she was both delighted and slightly annoyed. She had “planned” on winning Wimbledon last summer (the way that you or I would “plan” on getting the car serviced) and to miss the tournament through pregnancy was inconvenient, to say the least.

If she makes it to SW19 and should she be drawn to meet Maria again, it will be as is all the WTA’s Christmases have come at once.

There is simply no getting away from it: at the age of 36 and 31, with both still trying to reclaim their former glories, there are no two bigger stars than Serena and Maria. And it is so good to have them back.