PARIS (Reuters) -Serena Williams’ wait for a record-equalling 24th Grand Slam singles title goes on after the American was beaten 6-3 7-5 by an inspired Elena Rybakina in the French Open fourth round on Sunday.
From the moment the 21-year-old Rybakina, playing in only her seventh Grand Slam main draw, held her opening two service games without dropping a point, Williams looked in peril.
And so it proved as seventh seed Williams bowed out to add yet another twist to a wildly unpredictable women’s event.
With so many big names having fallen, including Victoria Azarenka early in the day, a prospective quarter-final opponent for Williams, the path to the final looked enticing.
But Williams, whose last Grand Slam title came in 2017 at the Australian Open, was unable to find her A game.
She remained philosophical in defeat, however, saying that her expectations coming into the tournament had not been high.
“I’m in a much better place than when I got here,” the American told reporters.
“You know, I was just literally trying to win a match, because it had been a really difficult season for me on the clay. Although I love the clay, I was, like, if I could just win a match. That’s kind of where I was kind of coming in.”
The 39-year-old Williams never really found her range but she recovered from an early service break in the opening set.
However, a fearless Rybakina, who hit 21 winners to the 15 of Williams throughout the contest, responded superbly to break again and pocket the opener in confident fashion.
The calm-headed and clean-hitting Rybakina, seeded 21, broke the Williams serve at 3-3 in the second set but immediately dropped her own as she betrayed the first sign of nerves.
It was Williams, contesting the round of 16 at a Slam for the 64th time, who faltered though. She looked hesitant and sluggish and dropped her serve to love in the next game.
Rybakina, who was born in Moscow but represents Kazakhstan, then calmly served out for the biggest win of her career as Williams belted a backhand long after one hour 17 minutes.
Her reaction was subdued, and she later explained her mindset going into the match.
“I follow the plan which we have. If it works well, I’m winning, and if it’s not, I’m just learning from the matches. It’s all like experience for me,” she said.
As Williams walked off Court Philippe Chatrier she stooped to pick up some clay dust — a hint perhaps that she feels time is running out to add to her three French Open titles.
She will, however, arrive at Wimbledon as one of the favourites as she tries to match Margaret Court’s 24 Grand Slam singles titles. Williams played down suggestions her gesture was a farewell to Roland Garros.
“I’m definitely not thinking about it at all,” she said. “I’m definitely thinking just about other things, not about that.”
Rybakina will go on to face the number 31 seed Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova for a place in the semi-finals after the Russian earlier beat 15th-seeded Azarenka 5-7 6-3 6-2.
(Reporting by Martyn Herman; Editing by Toby Davis and Ken Ferris)