By Martyn Herman
PARIS (Reuters) – American Serena Williams’ audacious attempt to win the French Open for a fourth time ended in crushing anti-climax on Monday as injury, rather than an old foe, forced the 36-year-old to admit defeat at Roland Garros.
The scene had been set for Williams in her ‘superhero’ catsuit to take on Russian ice queen Maria Sharapova in a fourth-round clash that had assumed top-billing.
But shortly before the two old warriors were due on court, the 23-times grand slam champion instead stepped into a news conference room to announce she was pulling out.
Williams, playing in her first Grand Slam tournament since giving birth to daughter Alexis Olympia last September, said she had suffered a pectoral muscle injury in her impressive third round victory against Germany’s Julia Goerges.
“Unfortunately I’m having some issues with my pec muscle. Right now I can’t actually serve it’s kind of hard to play,” she told a room packed with reporters.
“I’m having an MRI (scan) tomorrow, I’m going to stay here to see the doctors and see as many specialists as I can. I won’t know (how serious the injury is) until I get those results.”
Williams had worked hard to get back in shape and, despite starting the tournament with a notional ranking of 451 and having played only four matches this year, she actually looked capable of going all the way.
Dressed in the black bodysuit with a red band around the waist she resembled a superhero — not just a supermum — and was playing as if she had never been away.
Williams beat Australian 17th seed Ashleigh Barty in the second round and turned on the style against 11th seed Goerges.
However, on Sunday she took part in a third round doubles match with sister Venus, losing 6-4 6-7(4) 6-0 to Andreja Klepac and Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez, and apparently aggravated an injury she had first felt the previous day.
With an 18-match winning streak against twice French champion Sharapova in her favour, Williams said she was “beyond disappointed” not to be able to play on Monday.
“I gave up so much to time with my daughter and my family and put everything on court for this moment,” she said.
“It’s really difficult to be in this situation, but… for now in my life, I just always try to think positively and just think of the bigger picture and hopefully (I can play in) the next events and the rest of the year.
“I’m going to continue to get better. I had such a wonderful performance in my first Grand Slam back.”
Five-times Grand Slam champion Sharapova, who despite her long run of defeats by Williams is still considered an arch-rival, wished her nemesis a “speedy recovery”.
“I was looking forward to my match against Serena today and am disappointed that she had to withdraw,” the 28th seed said.
Sharapova, herself making a French Open comeback after missing the last two editions following a doping ban, will face either Garbine Muguruza or Lesia Tsurenko in the last eight.
Williams said she would have to wait to find out the extent of the injury before deciding whether she can play at Wimbledon.
But former world number one Kim Clijsters, who returned from having a baby to win the U.S. Open in 2009, said injuries of this nature are only to be expected for new mums returning to the top tier of sport.
“We were all looking forward to this match and excited to see what the outcome would be,” she told Eurosport.
“Pregnancy and birth is physically very demanding and you deal with new injuries that you are not used to. In the first part of my career I’d have recurring injuries and then after I had (daughter) Jada I had new injuries.”
The Belgian believes Williams can still add to her Grand Slam collection, though.
“I think Serena can get close to winning another Grand Slam. I think it’s these kind of new situations that she’ll go home and learn a lot about how she is feeling,” Clijsters added.
(Reporting by Martyn Herman; editing by Ken Ferris and Christian Radnedge)