PARIS: Serena Williams set up a mouth-watering French Open showdown against bitter rival Maria Sharapova on Saturday as Rafael Nadal kept his bid for an 11th title on track with a 16th successive win over childhood pal Richard Gasquet.
Three-time champion Williams made a nonsense of her 451 world ranking to reach the last-16 with a ruthless 6-3, 6-4 romp past German 11th seed Julia Goerges.
Sharapova, the 2012 and 2014 winner in Paris, was equally impressive, seeing off Czech sixth seed Karolina Pliskova 6-2, 6-1.
Sharapova and Williams have met 21 times, with the American leading the head-to-head record 19-2 after 18 consecutive wins.
The Russian has not beaten her nemesis since 2004 — before even the birth of Twitter and YouTube.
Williams, the champion in 2002, 2013 and 2015 and playing her first Slam since giving birth to her daughter in September, last played a major at the Australian Open in 2017 while two months pregnant.
Playing again in her striking all-black catsuit, the 36-year-old fired 20 winners past Goerges while committing just 12 unforced errors, three of which were in the first set.
“I think there is a lot of things in her game that she’s done much better than I have… Numbers don’t lie,” admitted Sharapova of facing her fellow former world number one.
Their most recent clash was at the 2016 Australian Open — it was also to be Sharapova’s last match before serving a 15-month doping ban.
Five-time Grand Slam champion Sharapova hadn’t played on Court Philippe Chatrier since a quarter-final exit in 2015.
However, she made up for lost time by firing 18 winners past an under-cooked Pliskova in just under an hour.
Meanwhile, Nadal, who turns 32 on Sunday, continued his bid for an 11th French Open title and 17th major by brushing aside Gasquet to claim a 16th consecutive win over his childhood friend.
The world number one’s record at Roland Garros now stands at 82 wins and just two losses.
The 16-time Grand Slam champion eased to a 6-3, 6-2, 6-2 victory on Chatrier to reach his 40th last-16 at a Slam.
He also took his run of consecutive completed sets at the French Open to 34, just seven shy of the record held by Bjorn Borg between 1979 and 1981.
Nadal, who lost only two points in the first five games, will next play Germany’s world number 70 Maximilian Marterer.
Nadal played down thoughts that he is unbeatable on clay — Austrian Dominic Thiem is the only player to win against him on the surface this year in Madrid.
“What I know is I go to the court, and I know that I can win, I can lose. I don’t come here saying, ‘You can’t win against me’.”
Women’s top seed Simona Halep, twice a runner-up, was shunted out to Court 18 for her third round clash against experienced Andrea Petkovic.
But she prevailed 7-5, 6-0 against the German who was hobbled by a right knee injury.
Former champion Garbine Muguruza reached the last 16 for the fifth successive year with a comfortable 6-0, 6-2 win over Australia’s Sam Stosur.
Spanish third seed Muguruza, the 2016 winner in Paris and the reigning Wimbledon champion, fired 15 winners past Stosur, the 34-year-old 2010 runner-up, and former US Open champion.
The Spaniard goes on to face Lesia Tsurenko of Ukraine who knocked out Slovakian 19th seed Magdalena Rybarikova 6-2, 6-4.
Estonian 25th seed Anett Kontaveit made the last 16 for the first time by downing Czech eighth seed Petra Kvitova who saw her 13-match win streak end in a horror show of 57 unforced errors.
Kontaveit next faces US Open champion Sloane Stephens, the American 10th seed, who saw off Italy’s Camila Giorgi 4-6, 6-1, 8-6.
Argentinian fifth seed Juan Martin del Potro reached the fourth round for the first time in six years by seeing off Albert Ramos-Vinolas 7-5, 6-4, 6-1 to set up a last-16 tie with either American John Isner or Pierre-Hugues Herbert, the only remaining Frenchman in the draw.
Elsewhere, Italy’s Fabio Fognini made the last 16 for the second time with a 6-3, 4-6, 3-6, 6-4, 6-4 win over Britain’s last man standing Kyle Edmund.
Fognini joins compatriot Marco Cecchinato in the fourth round, the first time that more than one Italian has made the last 16 since 1976.
He next faces third seed Marin Cilic who reached the fourth round of a Grand Slam for the 20th with a 6-3, 6-2, 6-4 win over Steve Johnson of the United States.
Belgian eighth seed David Goffin saved four match points to beat 2008 semi-finalist Gael Monfils of France 6-7 (6/8), 6-3, 4-6, 7-5, 6-3.