For a stretch here on Thursday, it seemed the world No 1 Serena Williams, a legend within sight of her 22nd slam, would be leaving the French Open in the quarter-finals, courtesy of a 5ft 4in Muscovite ranked 60 in the world, Yulia Putintseva.
The dilemma in which the defending champion found herself at a set and a break down could hardly have been in greater contrast to the match that had gone before on Court Philippe Chatrier, the orderly demolition of Tomas Berdych in straight sets by Williams’s male counterpart, Novak Djokovic.
But she found a way. After two hours and nine minutes, she left court a 5-7, 6-4, 6-1 winner, and headed for an altogether unlikely semi-final on Friday against Kiki Bertens, who beat the eighth seed Timea Bacsinszky 7-5, 6-2 in an hour and 52 minutes with considerably less angst on Court Suzanne Lenglen.
The 24-year-old Dutch six-footer, on a roll of 12 match wins, will zoom up the rankings from 58 – and might even make a name for herself against Williams if the grand dame of tennis has another dip. She will be the third lowest ranked player Williams has faced in a slam semi-final.
Putintseva (no relation) played with the cold-eyed steel of the macho president and deserved her first-set advantage, even though Williams brought much of the grief on herself with a rash of loose shots. She finished with 43 unforced errors, worryingly high so close to the end of a tournament, when she should be hitting a venomous rhythm.
However, her recent history in the slams is at odds with her pedigree and previous form. When she left Wimbledon as champion last year, with the Australian and French titles in the bag already, she eyed a rare calendar grand slam in front of her own fans in New York, yet fell at the feet of Roberto Vinci, the Italian doubles specialist, in the semi-finals.
In Melbourne, she handed Angelique Kerber her first slam - and the German immediately went on a losing streak, before arriving here in improved form, only to lose to Bertens in the first round.
So there was no way to fathom this form line - except to observe that Williams, as great as she is, suffers more often now in the big moment than she ever used to.
Here, she looked to be repairing the damage without fuss, up 4-1 in the second, until again losing focus and getting dragged into a deuce war on her serve at four-all that had the patrons gasping at her repeated mistakes. It took an errant backhand from her opponent to get her out of that hole.
A double-fault to hand Williams the set eased the rising concern in her camp, where Putintseva’s former mentor, Patrick Mouratoglou, now sits. He surely will have tutored the champion on what to expect - but Williams did not look in command of her destiny until the third set, where she struck with her old power and certainty.
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