PARIS -- It went from buzz to buzzkill in a blink. Round 22 in the ring between Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova -- a guaranteed blockbuster no matter where it arrived in the draw, no matter that their record stands at 19-2 in Williams' favor -- will have to wait.
The series, which is so asymmetrical that it has made Williams' utter dominance intriguing rather than boring, had already been on hold for two-plus years because of life events. This now-doused fourth-round French Open match would have provided Sharapova with an opportunity to reroute a pair of narratives: the competitive one that Williams has controlled for 14 years, and the legal, ethical and bureaucratic saga initiated when she tested positive for the banned drug meldonium in early 2016.
"She's been playing very well, and so she was ready for the fight," said her coach, Thomas Hogstedt, who was waiting with her near the entrance to center court Monday, late in Rafael Nadal's ongoing match when the WTA informed them of Williams' withdrawal.
Williams, 36, improved noticeably from match to match at Roland Garros, by far her most encouraging run of play since she returned in February from the September 2017 birth of her daughter. She would have been able to use the tilt as a measuring stick for her comeback, a pencil mark on the doorframe indicating that she is still the taller of the two despite their actual height difference.
"It's very difficult, because I love playing Maria," Williams said during a hastily called news conference in which her voice was just the slightest bit frayed around the edges. "It's just a match I always get up for. You know, it's just her game matches so well against mine."
Williams said she first sensed something was wrong in her otherwise confidence-building third-round win over Germany's Julia Goerges. But the first visible clues that something was amiss surfaced in the third set of her doubles match with sister Venus on Sunday.
Serena's velocity on first serves dropped from over 110 mph in the early going down to the 80s in the decisive set as the duo of Slovakia's Andreja Klepac and Spain's Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez shockingly bageled the sisters. The French television feed showed Williams' coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, hopping onto the court after the match and taking her bulky racket bag out of her hand before she could sling it on her aching shoulder.
Having watched Williams surmount the rigors of pregnancy, childbirth and serious postpartum complications in the past 17 months, it's tempting to view a pectoral muscle issue as a relatively small speed bump. But it's the fulcrum for her game, and a frustrating interruption.
Could Williams have continued through the singles draw if she hadn't been moonlighting? She said earlier in the tournament that she felt she had no choice but to play doubles to make up for lost match time.
Mouratoglou would have preferred that she didn't. It was a calculated risk that may have backfired, but there's a chance that the twinge would have gotten worse anyway. And there's no doubt that Williams would have wanted to be 100 percent of whatever percent she's regained on her old self when she faced Sharapova.
"She worked like I have never seen her work before," Mouratoglou said of Williams' recent training stint at his academy in the south of France. "So much effort, and she was so happy and proud of herself. To be stopped like that is difficult. I hope it's not too bad -- I think it's impossible for her to play, but I don't think that in the long term it's something that's going to be really bad."
Just before talking, the coach had fielded a text from Williams saying she wanted to do a fitness session in the morning. "She's super positive," he said.
According to ESPN's Stats & Info team, this is the first time Serena Williams has withdrawn from singles competition in the middle of a Grand Slam. What does it mean for Wimbledon? "I'm going to get an MRI tomorrow," Serena said in press. "I'm going to stay here [in Paris] and see some of the doctors here, see as many specialists as I can. And I won't know that until I get those results."
Every Grand Slam event constitutes some kind of statistical landmark for Williams, and this was an improbable one, given what can befall any top player over a two-decade-plus career: the first time she'd ever withdrawn before a match in a major. (Williams was 16 years old the only previous time she was unable to finish a match in a Slam, in the third round of Wimbledon in 1998 after sustaining a calf injury.) She had advanced to the semifinals in her past 10 Slams. Monday's anticlimax is called a "walkover" in tennis jargon and will not count as a win or loss in the Williams-Sharapova series, so that streak remains intact.
Adrenaline leaked out of the tournament as a whole Monday, but Sharapova is a veteran who knows how to handle the spike and dip of an unexpected day off. There's no energy to waste on the reboot that could have been against Williams. The Russian will face an equally rested Garbine Muguruza of Spain, the 2016 French Open champion whose opponent retired after just two games Monday, in the quarters.
There were moments over the past two seasons where it seemed uncertain that Williams and Sharapova would ever meet again. Now that guarantee is off the table again, and that is a shame. Their conjoined stories are about so much more than the tale of the tape.