Williams, 39, last won a major at the 2017 Australian Open while pregnant with her first child, daughter Alexis, born the following September. She has played on, in part, to chase the one career distinction to elude her: a 24th Grand Slam singles title that would equal Margaret Court’s record.
Williams’s exit from the French Open followed the voluntary one of 20-time Grand Slam champion Roger Federer, who withdrew just hours earlier, saying he needed time to recover from a grueling third-round victory that started late Saturday and stretched past midnight.
Like Williams, Federer’s focus now turns to Wimbledon.
“Obviously both of them believe they have a much better shot at Wimbledon,” noted seven-time Grand Slam champion John McEnroe, who served as an NBC analyst for Williams’s match, “so they want to make sure they’re ready and eager to go there.”
Williams entered the French Open having played just 12 matches in 2021 — three of them on clay. But she is unrivaled in her ability to play her way into form once a tournament begins, particularly with a Grand Slam title at stake.
In Rybakina, Williams faced an opponent who is 18 years younger and boasts comparable power, if far less big-match experience.
After powering through the first set, Rybakina held her nerve to close out the victory, breaking Williams’s serve a fifth time and coaxing errant groundstrokes into punishing blasts of her own.
“Of course I was nervous,” Rybakina said during her on-court interview. But she showed no emotion upon clinching the victory on a final error by Williams.
While Williams entered the tournament with modest expectations, given her limited preparation on clay, she acquitted herself well through the first three rounds. Combined with the early departure of the top three seeds, that left Williams the highest seed (No. 7) in her half of the draw — a golden opportunity to reach the final.
Nonetheless, she characterized her run to the fourth round as a positive despite Sunday’s straight-sets defeat.
“I’m in a much better place than when I got here,” Williams said in her post-match news conference. “You know, just literally trying to win a match, because it had been a really difficult season for me on the clay. And although I love the clay, I was, like, ‘If I could just win a match!’”
Williams’s defeat leaves three American women still standing: 2020 Australian Open champion Sofia Kenin, the highest remaining seed (No. 4); 17-year-old Coco Gauff, the French Open’s junior champion in 2018, seeded 24th; and unseeded Sloane Stephens, the 2017 U.S. Open champion.
World No. 1 and top seed Ashleigh Barty, the 2019 French Open victor, withdrew while trailing in her second-round match, explaining that a left hip injury made it impossible to continue.
Second-seeded Naomi Osaka withdrew before the second round, saying she didn’t want to be a further distraction after her stance against giving news conferences triggered a $15,000 fine and potential disqualification by French Open officials.
Williams, who competed with heavy tape on her right thigh, waved to the sparse crowd at Roland Garros’ center court, which was capped by pandemic protocols, as she walked off to warm applause.
Now, her focus shifts to Wimbledon, where she is a seven-time champion.
“I’m kind of excited to switch surfaces,” Williams said, noting that she historically had “done pretty well on grass.”