The expectations were high for Ashleigh Barty entering Roland Garros.
The world No. 1 won the French Open title in 2019, and she showed evidence of her returned championship form on clay during lead-in events after opting out of the event in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic. She collected the singles and doubles trophies in Stuttgart, and she advanced to the final in Madrid.
The 25-year-old was a, if not the, favorite to hoist the Suzanne Lenglen Cup yet again, and was open about how excited she was to be back in Paris.
All of that came to an abrupt halt on Thursday during her second-round match against Magda Linette. Having injured her left hip during practice over the weekend before play started, her pain was evident almost immediately. Her movement was limited and her serve lacked its usual power. She had three double faults by the end of her second service game and lost the first set 6-1. Even a medical timeout after the first set didn't help. With the score tied at 2-all in the second set, and with the pain becoming what she later described as teetering toward "unsafe," Barty retired from the match, ending her quest for her second Grand Slam title in an anticlimactic moment at the net.
Even the always-pragmatic Barty couldn't conceal how much the exit hurt.
"It's heartbreaking," Barty said. "I mean, we have had such a brilliant clay court season, and to kind of get a little bit unlucky with timing more than anything, to have something kind of acute happen over the weekend and just kind of run out of time against the clock is disappointing."
It marks just the second time in the Open era in which the women's top seed at a major had to retire or withdraw, and with Naomi Osaka's withdrawal, is only the third time at Roland Garros in the Open era in which the top two seeds failed to advance beyond the second round.
Beyond the historical implications, the early departures set an incredible opportunity for those remaining in Barty's half of the draw and the tournament at large.
Of the seven major champions in the top half of the draw, just three remain heading into the third round. What once looked like a near-impossible side is still packed with talent, but it is considerably less predictable.
Iga Swiatek, the reigning champion, remains one of the favorites.
The 20-year-old was a revelation at the 2020 staging of the tournament in the fall -- she didn't drop a set en route to the final and all but dismantled her often-far more experienced opponents like Simona Halep, who is also missing from Paris with injury. And before heading to Paris, Swiatek won the Italian Open in her final tune-up event.
She's shown no signs of letting up during this stint in Roland Garros either and still has yet to lose a set. Swiatek needed just over an hour to defeat Rebecca Peterson on Thursday and only gave up two games in the match.
Swiatek said she was nervous about returning as the defending champion for the first time at a tournament of any level, but her experience provided a boost, and she knows better than to concern herself with who else remains in the draw.
"I don't think about it," Swiatek said. "You know, we see that so many players can win a Grand Slam, not having so much experience. I had that situation. Many young players are actually, you know, winning and taking the confidence from every match, and actually, you know, getting more experienced in a tournament. I don't care that many seeds have pulled out or already lost. I'm just, you know, focusing on my next round."
Swiatek faced Sofia Kenin in the 2020 French Open final and it just so happens that Kenin won on Thursday, too. Despite a challenging start to her season, with a shocking second-round exit at the Australian Open in which she was the defending champion, an emergency appendix surgery and parting with her dad as her coach, the 22-year-old has held off tricky opponents in Jelena Ostapenko, the 2017 French Open champion, and up-and-comer Hailey Baptiste thus far in Paris.
Kenin is one of five American women remaining on her side of the draw, and eight overall.
After being two points away from a first-round loss earlier this week, Sloane Stephens, the 2017 US Open champion and former finalist in Paris, rebounded with an impressive 7-5, 6-1 win over Karolina Pliskova, the No. 9 seed. It was Stephens' first win over a player ranked in the top 10 since 2018.
"I've put the work in and I'm just trying to get to where I was before," Stephens said during a postmatch interview on the Tennis Channel. "I'm trying to enjoy it a little bit more and creating those opportunities for myself. That's all you can do and whatever happens, happens."
Stephens, who is unseeded and fell outside of the top 50 with a disappointing start to her season, proved anyone remaining in the draw should be considered dangerous.
And in women's tennis, where there have been 11 first-time Grand Slam champions since the start of the 2016 season, a new contender could emerge. Perhaps it could be Karolina Muchova, Stephens' next opponent, who reached the semifinals at the Australian Open earlier this year, or Marta Kostyuk, who pulled off the upset over former champion Garbine Muguruza in her opener and won again on Thursday.
During her news conference, Kostyuk didn't come out and directly say it could be her, but she didn't say no to the possibility either.
"I think we are at times where anyone in women's tennis, anyone can win a Slam, kind of," Kostyuk said. "Not like anyone, anyone, but a lot of girls. Let's [put] it that way. It's not that I have this strong feeling inside me that I'm coming into a Grand Slam believing that I can win it, but this time I feel really good.
"I believe anything is possible."
And at 18 years old, Kostyuk isn't even the youngest player still standing.
That would be 17-year-old Coco Gauff, who is playing in her first major as a seeded player. She reached the round of 32 for the first time in Paris following a win over Qiang Wang and became the youngest American woman to do so since 1998. Gauff won the singles and doubles title in Parma last month, and her momentum has not yet slowed.
Gauff will take on fellow American Jennifer Brady, who reached the final in Melbourne and the semifinals in New York. Yep, she remains in this half of the draw, too. As do No. 5 Elina Svitolina, No. 17 Maria Sakkari, No. 25 Ons Jabeur and No. 28 Jessica Pegula -- all of whom have previously reached the second week at a major before and have recorded wins over top-10 players this year.
Jabeur has the first opportunity to capitalize on the absence of Barty -- Jabeur would have faced the Aussie in the third round, but will now play Linette.
"I honestly wanted to play [Barty], but Magda is a great player," Jabeur said. "I'm going to be ready, I'm going to play my game, and I will try to get the win."
No matter the outcome of Saturday's match between Jabeur and Linette, it's anyone's guess who will reach the final from this side of the draw.
Not to mention, there are more than a few players from the other half of the draw who are capable of winning the trophy.
There's Aryna Sabalenka, who is now the highest-seeded player remaining in the tournament and won the title in Madrid last month. Having never advanced past the fourth round at a major before, she's hoping Paris could be the site of her latest career breakthrough.
And there's Victoria Azarenka and Madison Keys, who will battle on Friday for a spot in the round of 16. Both know what it takes to reach the championship match -- Azarenka is a two-time Australian Open champion and reached the final in New York in September, and Keys played in the 2017 US Open title match.
And of course, there's Serena Williams. The 23-time major champion won a tough test in her second-round match and will have to next get through fellow American Danielle Collins. With what is shaping up to be perhaps her best chance of tying Margaret Court's long-standing record, she will undoubtedly look to seize the opportunity.
As for Barty, instead of fighting for her second title at Roland Garros, she'll spend the remainder of the fortnight trying to get healthy in time for Wimbledon. But she was hopeful about whatever comes next.
"I've had my fair share of tears this week," Barty said. "It's all good. Everything happens for a reason. There will be a silver lining in this eventually. Once I find out what that is, it'll make me feel a little bit better, but it will be there, I'm sure."