Brady, Mickelson ... Serena? Williams in the hunt at French Open

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·5-min read
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The wisdom of age is having a moment. A creaky, taped-up, this'll-hurt-in-the-morning moment, but still.

Last week, Helio Castroneves won the Indy 500 at age 46. Last month, Phil Mickelson won the PGA Championship at age 50. Earlier this year, Tom Brady won the Super Bowl at age 43. Last fall, Sue Bird won her fourth WNBA title just days before turning 40. 

Now here comes Serena Williams, 39 years old, twice the age of many of her contemporaries, firing her way into the round of 16 at the French Open. She's still a long way from winning her 24th major, but a confluence of favorable circumstances — top-ranked opponents bowing out, her own return to form, something in the zeitgeist that's favoring old-timers — is drawing the spotlight back to the legend.

"Nobody else is Serena out here," Williams said shortly after defeating fellow American Danielle Collins 6-4, 6-4. "It’s me. It’s pretty cool."

Williams' French Open odds on BetMGM have risen to the point that she's now second on the board at +600 behind Iga Swiatek's +110, up from +2000 pre-tournament, and that's not just pricing in a hedge against casual bettors. Williams has a legitimate chance to win at Roland-Garros, though she'll have to do so in a very different way than any of the other recent well-seasoned champions.

Brady and Bird were first-chair violins in a well-conducted symphony, part of a larger ensemble that maximized the best of their talents. Castroneves used engineering unavailable to his younger self, as well as guile and some strategic errors by his rivals, to take the checkered flag. Mickelson kept his head while his younger challengers lost theirs on an unfamiliar course. 

Williams won't have any of those advantages or opportunities. She's alone on the red clay, facing off against players who grew up emulating her strength and mindset. She's fighting history; she's "only" won three French Opens, compared to six US Opens and seven apiece at Wimbledon and in Australia. 

She's also fighting time; she last won a major in 2017 in Australia while two months pregnant with her daughter. Since then, she's reached the finals four times — twice at both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in 2018 and 2019 — and she hasn't been able to even force a third set in any of those matches. Over that four-year span, she's become a mother, she's battled through illness and depression, and she's further ascended to the status of global icon; tennis has faded in importance in her life. 

Still, here she is, in the mix, with a legitimate shot at tying Margaret Court's all-time Grand Slam record. The rest of the way at Roland-Garros won't be easy — winning a major never is — but her half of the draw cleared up considerably for the seventh-seeded Williams after No. 2 Naomi Osaka withdrew and No. 3 Aryna Sabalenka fell 6-4, 2-6, 6-0 to Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova. 

"There’s still a lot of matches, a lot of great players, as we can see," Williams said, tamping down assumptions that she'll roll through the bracket. "There’s so much depth in this game now, it doesn’t matter if you’re playing in the first round or not, you really have to fight for every match and nothing comes easy."

Williams now stands as the highest remaining seed in her half of the bracket. She's also the oldest woman ever to reach the French Open singles round of 16 in the Open era, topping the mark of her then-36-year-old sister Venus in 2017. 

But she's carrying a newfound dose of confidence in those well-worn bones, thanks in large part to the way she managed to defeat Collins. After winning the first set 6-4, she lost four straight games to fall behind 4-1 in the second, but reeled in five straight games to take the match. 

"I just needed a win," Williams said after her win over Collins. "I needed to win tough matches. I needed to win sets. I needed to win being down. I needed to find me, know who I am."

Next up: Elena Rybakina, a 21-year-old seeded 21st with strength every bit the equal of Williams. A win over Rybakina could put Williams on a collision course with Victoria Azarenka, the only other major winner in Williams' half of the draw. But Azarenka, a two-time Australian Open champion, has only advanced as far as the semifinals at Roland-Garros one time, in 2013. Swiatek would not match up with Williams until the finals. 

Williams will be battling the weight of her own legacy every time she steps onto the court, carrying a burden like no other player she'll face. But when some other older legends are coming out for one more bow, it's not time to write her off just yet.

Serena Williams in victory. (Gao Jing/Xinhua via Getty Images)
Serena Williams in victory. (Gao Jing/Xinhua via Getty Images)

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Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter/Instagram/Facebook at @jaybusbee or contact him at jay.busbee@yahoo.com.

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