To the names of Virginie Razzano and Garbine Muguruza we nearly added that of Yulia Putintseva.
Serena Williams, beaten here at the French Open by Razzano in the first round in 2012 and by the previously unheralded Muguruza in the second round two years later, went within five points of another shocking defeat at the French Open before beating Putintseva 5-7, 6-4, 6-1 to secure a semi-final meeting tomorrow with Kiki Bertens. There were times when you would never have guessed that Williams was the world No 1 and the holder of 21 Grand Slam titles.
The 34-year-old American sprayed mishit shots to all corners of a damp and chilly Court Philippe Chatrier, charged recklessly into the net behind poor approach shots and looked ill at ease in the face of Putintseva’s feisty determination in her first Grand Slam quarter-final.
Williams towered over the 21-year-old from Kazakhstan, who is just 5ft 4in tall, but the world No 60 was never intimidated and seemed to sense her opponent’s anxiety. Ever since Williams lost to Roberta Vinci in the semi-finals of last year’s US Open when just two wins away from completing a calendar-year Grand Slam there has been a sense of vulnerability about the American, suggesting that she is feeling the pressure of attempting to win the one trophy she needs to match Steffi Graf’s Open era record of 22 Grand Slam singles titles.
Nevertheless, there was little indication of the struggles to come when Williams served at 5-5 in the opening set. However, at deuce Putintseva hit a backhand cross-court winner and on the next point Williams netted a backhand. Putintseva served out to love to take the set, upon which she urged the crowd to turn up the volume.
Putintseva broke in the opening game of the second set, dropped her own serve immediately but launched another fightback from 4-2 down. Williams dropped serve on a double fault in the next game and soon found herself serving at 4-4. At 30-30 she put a woeful volley wide and saved the subsequent break point only when Putintseva missed a backhand.
Having held serve, Williams was shaking her head and looking distressed when she returned to her chair at 5-4. In the following game Putintseva saved the first set point with a drop shot but lost the second on a double fault. Crisis over, Williams ran away with the deciding set.
In Bertens Williams will face another player with no experience of Grand Slam competition at this level. The 24-year-old Dutchwoman had never gone beyond the fourth round of a Grand Slam tournament until this week. Indeed, her run to the last 16 here two years ago was the only previous occasion when she had gone beyond the second round of a Grand Slam tournament.
Bertens, who will be the first Dutchwoman to play in a Grand Slam semi-final since Betty Stove at the 1977 US Open, won her 12th match in succession when she beat Switzerland’s Timea Bacsinszky, a semi-finalist here last year, 7-5, 6-2.
In tomorrow’s other semi-final Muguruza will take on Australia’s Sam Stosur, who was runner-up to Francesca Schiavone here in 2010.