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How Will Serena Williams' Elbow Injury Impact the 2015 French Open?

Joe Kennard@@JoeKennardFeatured ColumnistMay 15, 2015

ROME, ITALY - MAY 12:  Serena Williams of USA in action against Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova of Russia in their Second Round match on Day Three of The Internazionali BNL d'Italia 2015 at the Foro Italico on May 12, 2015 in Rome, Italy.  (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)
Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

Not many players have made Serena Williams look uncomfortable on the court in 2015. But her stiffest opposition may be coming from within.

An elbow injury forced Williams to withdraw from Rome before her third round match against Christina McHale. With the French Open just days away, the world No. 1 will now have to worry about managing her own health as she trains for the most important tournament of the spring.

That injury could have big ramifications.

Williams’ sizzling 24-0 start to the season ended with a whimper in Madrid last week when she lost in straight sets to Petra Kvitova. Flat and despondent, the American was out of sorts that match and lacked her usual firepower.

MADRID, SPAIN - MAY 08:  Petra Kvitova of Czech Republic is congratulated by Serena Williams of USA after their semi final match during day seven of the Mutua Madrid Open tennis tournament at the Caja Magica on May 8, 2015 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo by Jul
Julian Finney/Getty Images

Against Kvitova, she began experiencing pain in her right elbow. Hindered on serve and lacking confidence with her ground strokes, Williams couldn’t get any rhythm going and fell meekly to the Czech.

There were few signs of struggle in her next match—a 6-3, 6-1 drubbing of Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova—yet she still didn’t feel comfortable physically and pulled the plug on Rome.

Relinquishing her quest for a third-straight crown at the Italian Open wasn’t an easy choice, but it was a smart one. As the Associated Press (h/t ESPN) quoted her:

I think it was a mature decision for me. I've made some bad decisions in the past.

[…]

I don't think it will [linger]. I think if I continue to play, it could get worse, and then I could have a situation on my hands. I've learned from some things in the past. If I continue to play it could not only hurt my chances for Roland Garros but maybe for Wimbledon.

Rather than pushing herself and risking further damage, Williams will hope the injury heals in time before she heads to Paris. She’ll need to be close to 100 percent there to avoid a repeat of her shock second-round exit from last year.

Her elbow problem opens the door slightly for some of her main rivals, including Kvitova, Maria Sharapova and Simona Halep. If Williams is still hampered at the French Open, those players will be ready to take advantage.

Kvitova, fresh off her destruction of Svetlana Kuznetsova for the Madrid title, seems re-energized after stepping away from the game this spring. Though not as natural a mover as her peers, the towering lefty has the power to disrupt any opponent. Even with her loss in the quarterfinals of Rome, Kvitova is poised for a big summer.

Any sign of weakness from Williams will also come as welcome news to one woman she frequently torments: Sharapova. After her defeat in the Australian Open final to Williams, the Russian endured middling results. But with her semifinal appearance in Madrid and her deep run in Rome, the defending French Open champion is peaking at the right time.

Another player eager to steal the spotlight from Williams? Last year's runner-up at Roland Garros, Simona Halep. The world No. 2 has righted the ship after a semifinal loss in Stuttgart and a second round exit in Madrid. This week, the Romanian has thrived on the slow clay, beating opponents down with her rock-steady game. Halep may soon have her best chance yet to capture a maiden Grand Slam title.

Williams still deserves the benefit of the doubt heading to Paris. But those doubts have increased because of her recent injury. While the exact severity of her ailment may not be known, one thing is clear: That right elbow just added an extra element of unpredictability and intrigue to the picture.

All statistics are courtesy of WTATennis.com unless otherwise noted. 

Joe Kennard is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. 

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