As more highly seeded rivals in the bottom half of the draw falter, Serena Williams remains resolute.
After a 7-5, 7-6(2) defeat of Kristina Mladenovic, the great American’s quest for an eighth Wimbledon singles title and record-equalling 24th Grand Slam title will safely continue into the second week.
Soon after a pair of aces sealed a hard-fought victory in one hour, 49 minutes, Williams reminded her interviewer that this was just her second “serious” tournament back. The first, Roland-Garros, ended with a pectoral muscle injury after just three matches. For the oldest woman left in the singles draw, this one rolls on.
“I’m really happy. I had an early break in the second so I’m going to go back and see what went wrong there,’’ she said, before that pointed mention about being very satisfied with how far she has already come since her March return from maternity leave. Her current world ranking is No.181.
She said: “I’ve worked really, really, really hard and it’s been a long, long, arduous road back, but I always expect to come out and do the best that I can do, and that’s all that I can continue to hope for.”
Williams has not lost a singles match at the All England Club since another Frenchwoman, Alize Cornet, completed an enormous upset in the third round of 2014. There would be no repeat by world No.62 Mladenovic, who nevertheless played a very fine match.
Williams was in no hurry to start, receiving a code violation warning for breaching the one-minute requirement after time has been called. She was, however, in a real rush to finish in two sets, raising her level in the tie-break, as she has so often in tight situations before.
The No.25 seed will play another mother, but a less expected presence in the last 16, Russian qualifier Evgeniya Rodina, who upset US Open finalist Madison Keys.
Keys admits she is getting a taste of what it must be like to have every opponent raise their level – “it must suck,’’ she said – and Williams appreciated the acknowledgement.
Williams said: “Yeah, every single match I play, whether I’m coming back from a baby or surgery, it doesn’t matter, these young ladies, they bring a game that I’ve never seen before,’’ she said, explaining that scouting reports were often futile.
“It’s a totally different game than when they play me. That’s what makes me great: I always play everyone at their greatest, so I have to be greater.’’
The upside, Williams said, was that her own standards had been raised as a result. “My level, if it wasn’t high, I wouldn’t be who I am. So I had to raise my level to unknown because they’re playing me at a level that’s unknown.’’
Still, she is adamant she has nothing to lose, or prove. “Everything is a bonus. Every time I step out there, I know what I’m capable of. I know every Grand Slam, I’ve won ’em, I’m capable of just going out there and enjoying it. Now, that doesn’t always happen, but that’s how I try to think.
“Not many other people on the tour have won 23, so I’m in a unique position. I mean, Roger is very close. He’s catching up. He’s right there. I can see him. But that’s amazing, you know. There’s only a handful of people that can say that they don’t have to do anything else in their career.’’
Williams said: “Every opponent is playing their A game and as we see in this tournament so many top players have lost. And technically I’m not a top player, but I do have the wins of one, so I just get ready for anyone that I play.”
Mladenovic started positively, positioning herself aggressively on the baseline for the return, earning two break points in the first game and converting her second in the fifth game with a backhand winner.
Mladenovic had not hit a single unforced error by the time she served for the first set at 5-4, when she slipped attempting a sliced backhand from beyond the baseline. Apparently more discomforted than injured, the Frenchwoman nevertheless lost her serve and the next four games as a more intense Williams strung together a match-turning stretch of five and was gifted a double fault by Mladenovic on her fourth set point.
Yet just when it seemed the American might charge to victory when ahead 2-0 in the second, a loose service game that included a fluffed overhead, wildly mishit forehand and a double fault of her own allowed Mladenovic back in. After saving a match point in the 12th game, it was decided in a tie-break that was never in doubt.
Playing just the fourth tournament and 10th match of her comeback from the September birth of daughter Olympia, Williams had not dropped a set in her opening two rounds against Arantxa Rus and qualifier Viktoriya Tomova.
Mladenovic is at a different level, though, despite her modest current ranking – a position largely brought about by her winless singles run through 12 consecutive tournaments from August until February.
She reached No.10 just last October, albeit briefly, and looks to be heading in the right direction again. Part of the rebuild has involved equalling her previous best Wimbledon result, and it took the incomparable Williams to stop Mladenovic from going further still.
Source: Linda Pearce|| Wimbledon