Rybakina was not born when Williams made her debut at Roland Garros

Credit: AFP

Serena Williams followed her 1981-born contemporary Roger Federer out of the French Open, after a straight-sets defeat in which she was unable to cope with the ferocious ball-striking of Kazakhstan’s Elena Rybakina.

Afterwards, 39-year-old Williams ducked a question about whether this might be her final appearance at Roland Garros. “I’m definitely not thinking about it at all,” she said.

Wearing heavy strapping on her right leg, as she had done throughout the tournament, Williams lacked the speed of foot to cope with Rybakina’s bombardment, which never relented and showed no sign of nerves even as the 21-year-old closed in on her first major quarter-final.

Another opportunity to equal Margaret Court’s grand-slam record has therefore passed by. And this was a good one, on paper anyway, given that Rybakina – the 21st seed – is now the highest-ranked player still standing in the bottom half of the draw. There will be at least one first-time grand-slam finalist on Saturday.

In one rally, Williams lost her balance while hustling along the baseline, and ended up sitting down in the red clay – which made a mess of her leaf-green outfit. In another, she tried to backpedal out of the way of a Rybakina groundstroke that was going to fly long, but only succeeded in letting the ball hit her racket on the full and bounce away.

Williams had looked solid through her first three matches but not on Sunday

Credit: AFP

This was an extremely unusual way to lose a point, and as she contemplated her error, Williams remained bent double over her racket for a good ten seconds of despair.

By the time she had reached the interview room, though, she had regained some of her equilibrium. In fact, she echoed Federer by suggesting that she had been grateful simply to pick up a few wins. (The main difference being that she had at least made it onto the court for her fourth-round match.)

“I did not have the best clay-court season,” said Williams, who had lost two of her three matches in Parma and Rome. “But, yeah, it was good to finally get some wins on clay. I’m in a much better place than when I got here.”

Even in this quote, we can hear the voice of a woman whose expectations have changed. When she returned from maternity leave in 2018, Williams was still expecting to win finals, not extracting the positives from a run to the fourth round.

Might she now contemplate an extra grass-court event, given that she has only managed four victories since early Febuary, and that Wimbledon is still three weeks away? Apparently not.

“I don’t think I’m going to play a warmup,” Williams replied. “I haven’t really thought about it yet, but possibly go home and regroup and then get ready for London. I have to get there early for quarantine, so, yeah, it has to be pretty soon.”

Konta splits with coach Dimitri Zavialoff ahead of grass-court season

British No 1 Johanna Konta revealed that she had parted company with her coach, Dimitri Zavialoff, in a move that suggests some uncertainty about her approach to the grass-court season.

The Frenchman was at Konta’s side throughout her superbly consistent 2019 season, when she reached the quarter-finals at Wimbledon and the US Open as well as the semi-finals of the French Open.

They originally parted last summer after a bereavement in Zavialoff’s family, but when they reunited in November, it seemed to augur well for a revival in Konta’s fortunes after a disappointing 2020 in which she scored only one win over a top-50 player.

Unfortunately, this year has continued in the same vein, with only three wins from 10 matches. It was not clear from Konta’s comments who lost patience with whom – indeed, she did her best not to acknowledge the split at all – but the upshot is that the French Open was Zavialoff’s last event as part of her team.

This week, as Konta contests the Viking Open in Nottingham, she will be working with her assistant coach, the former British tour player Dan Smethurst. She will open her campaign against world No 177 Lesley Pattinama Kerkhove, probably on Tuesday,

“We left on very good terms,” Konta said, “and Dimitri will always be a very big part of my career and my life.” Asked if she was looking to appoint a successor, she replied: “I am taking some time and seeing how I want to do things.”

She also defended herself against suggestions that she changed coaches frequently, saying “a lot more players go through a lot  more coaches than I do”, although few of her signings have lasted much longer than a single season.