The Serena-Sharapova rivalry is as compelling as it is lopsided

PARIS -- She is rifling back through the pages of the calendar match by match in this tournament, heating up gradually, making her absence melt away. Serena Williams and her space-age catsuit have now traveled far enough in time to book a fourth-round date with a familiar foil, Maria Sharapova.

"Aujourd'hui c'est tres solide pour moi, [Today is very solid for me]," Williams told on-court interviewer Cedric Pioline in a smiling understatement after an efficient straight-sets win Saturday over Germany's 11th-seeded Julia Goerges. There was no easing into form, as she did in her first two matches here. Williams looked grounded on the red dirt from her opening service.

Sharapova, 31, sprinted to the reunion earlier in the day by demolishing sixth-seeded Karolina Pliskova of the Czech Republic in 59 minutes. Afterward, reporters pushed Sharapova along the reverse conveyor belt to her unhappy statistical history with Williams: a lopsided 19-2 advantage for the American that includes an unbroken string of victories on all surfaces since Sharapova won the finals at Wimbledon and the year-end WTA championship in 2004.

Only four of their matches have gone to three sets. Williams, 36, has gotten the better of Sharapova in three Grand Slam finals, two WTA title bouts and the 2012 Olympic gold medal match, a particularly crushing encounter. What chunk of the dominance is psychological, as opposed to sheer physical craft, will be forever open to debate.

Their series defies the law of averages and hews to the Serena Rules, yet it remains as compelling as it is lopsided. Williams and Sharapova are two of the world's most recognizable women, brands unto themselves, kids born into humble circumstances who grew up to trade the top ranking on Forbes Magazine's list of highest-paid female athletes.

The commonality ends there. Even their comebacks stand in complete contrast.

The two last crossed paths in the 2016 Australian Open quarterfinals, in which Williams prevailed for the 18th straight time.

Little more than a month after the loss, Sharapova announced that she had tested positive after that very match for a then-little-known banned substance called meldonium. She was the biggest celebrity among a flood of Russian and eastern European athletes who used the drug marketed as a cardiac health aide.

Many of those positives were later essentially nullified because of scientific missteps by the World Anti-Doping Agency, but Sharapova's admission that she had neglected to keep up with changes to the prohibited list and continued to take the drug triggered a lengthy and tangled two-tier arbitration. Her suspension was reduced on appeal to 15 months.

"I have spoken about that chapter for a long time now, and to be able to put myself back in these positions and to not shy away from these moments, to come out on center court and want the challenge of moving forward and to be able to face Serena, I think that speaks for itself," Sharapova said.

"No matter the record against her, I still come into this tournament and want to put myself in the position to play against the best. There [are] a lot of things in her game that she's done much better than I have. ... Numbers don't lie."

While Sharapova served her suspension, Williams won her 22nd major championship at Wimbledon in 2016 and her 23rd at the 2017 Australian Open, knowing during the latter what she would reveal in her own time: She was pregnant with her daughter, Alexis Olympia Ohanian Jr., who was born Sept. 1.

The most significant encounter between the two players since their most recent stare-down took place at a distance. Sharapova's September 2017 autobiography, "Unstoppable: My Life So Far," mentioned Williams dozens of times and dwelled on the moments after Sharapova's 2004 Wimbledon victory, when Sharapova described hearing her opponent sob in the locker room.

On Saturday, Williams dismissed the notion that any particular moment could define her motivation.

"I think the book was 100 percent hearsay, at least all the stuff I read and the quotes that I read, which was a little bit disappointing," she said. "You know, I have cried in the locker room many times after a loss, and that's what I have seen a lot of people do. I think it's normal.

"It's a Wimbledon final, you know. I think it would be more shocking if I wasn't in tears."

Reigning US Open champion Sloane Stephens, who also advanced to the round of 16 on Saturday, called the prospect of a Sharapova-Williams showdown a "layup" in terms of its mass appeal.

Will it follow the long-established pattern of being a slam dunk?

Sharapova, seeded 28th, played relatively well in the French Open tune-up events and reached the Rome semifinal.

"You don't put those hours on the back courts in Bradenton-fricking-Florida to just show up at events like this and not bring it," said Sharapova, who has two titles (2012, 2014) at Roland Garros to Williams' three (2002, 2013, 2015).

Williams arrived in Paris ranked No. 451 and rusty after just a handful of matches since February, none on clay. She said Sharapova should be the favorite Monday. Only she knows if she means it.