Defending champion Serena Williams pulled off a comeback win in the French Open quarterfinals on Thursday, recovering from a set and a break down to beat Yulia Putintseva 5-7, 6-4, 6-1.
How close was Williams to her earliest exit at a Grand Slam tournament since Wimbledon in 2014? Putintseva, who is from Kazakhstan and ranked only 60th, twice was a point from serving for the biggest victory of her career.
“She played unbelievable. And I honestly didn’t think I was going to win that in the second set,” said Williams, who will face another unseeded opponent, 58th-ranked Kiki Bertens of the Netherlands, in the semifinals. “Somehow I did.”
Bertens, a qualifier at the Nuremberg clay court tournament just before Roland Garros began, continued her fairytale run through the draw, beating Switzerland’s Timea Bacsinszky, a semifinalist last year, 7-5, 6-2 to make her first ever semifinal at a Grand Slam.
Yes, Williams came through, as she so often does, overcoming not only a relentless competitor in Putintseva but also her own shakiness on a cloudy, chilly day that included a brief rain delay in the third game. The top-seeded Williams’ strokes were off, her range was wrong, to the tune of mistake after mistake after mistake.
She made 11 unforced errors before Putintseva committed a single one, and at the end of the first set, the count was 24-2, which seems like it might be a typo but is not. Williams got so desperate at one point that she shifted her racket to her left hand to try a shot that way — and whiffed.
By the end, the unforced error statistics read this way: Williams 43, Putintseva 16.
But by the end, too, Williams was asserting herself as no one else currently on tour can, winding up with twice as many winners as Putintseva, 36-18.
And now Williams can continue her quest for a 22nd Grand Slam title, which would equal Steffi Graf’s Open-era record.
Since getting No 21 at Wimbledon a year ago for her fourth consecutive Major, Williams has bowed out in the semifinals of the US Open last September against Roberta Vinci of Italy — ending the American’s bid for a calendar-year Grand Slam — and in the final of the Australian Open this January against Angelique Kerber of Germany.
This setback would have come in the quarterfinals, though, and against a more unheralded opponent. Putintseva is only 21, 13 years younger than Williams, and had never been past the third round of any major tournament until this one.
Yet Putintseva — who used to train with Williams’ coach, Patrick Mouratoglou — threw her 5-foot-4 (1.63-metre) frame into groundstrokes to send balls deep into the court and make things rather interesting for two sets.
At 5-all in the first, Williams went ahead 40-love on her serve, only to get broken. Putintseva then served out that set at love when Williams — what else? — flubbed a backhand. Putintseva yelled with joy and waved her arms, telling the spectators to rejoice with her.
Williams hadn’t lost a set in the tournament until this match, and this was more like a year ago at Roland Garros, where she was forced to win five three-setters on the way to the championship.
When she sat on the sideline, Putintseva smiled widely. Alas, there was still work to be done.
At 4-all in the second set, Putintseva held two break points: Had she converted either, she would have been ahead 5-4 and served for the match. She couldn’t do it. Williams didn’t let her.
And when Williams wound up holding there with a drop volley winner, she looked up to the gray sky with her palms aloft, as if to say, “Whew!”
Williams then broke to take the set when Putintseva double-faulted. Putintseva twirled her racket and dropped it and shoved the brim of her white cap over her eyes. They would go on to play another 32 minutes, but that was pretty much that.
The third set was lopsided as can be, strikingly so given what had transpired until then, and when Williams smacked one return winner, she raised her left fist in the air, much better body language than she exhibited earlier.