Thursday 13 December 2018

Serena turns up the volume to get back in Wimbeldon groove

Serena Williams given a tough test at Wimbledon Photo: Getty Images
Serena Williams given a tough test at Wimbledon Photo: Getty Images

Simon Briggs

As Serena Williams began her 18th Wimbledon campaign yesterday, it was hard to say which was her biggest asset: the 115mph serve, or the ability to make her opponents' blood run cold.

Williams looked uncomfortable at times against the unheralded Arantxa Rus, a Dutchwoman ranked No 105 in the world. The wind was swirling violently around No 1 Court, and her stuttering footwork - which is not yet grooved after just seven previous matches in the last 18 months - left her struggling to time the ball.

But whenever things became sticky, Williams turned up the volume. She does not grunt so much as roar, like the alpha female in a pride of lions.

At one point late in the first set, she accompanied a forehand volley with such a shout that the BBC's watching commentator, Martina Navratilova, could not help chuckling.

"That was the loudest volley I've ever heard," said Navratilova, pointing out that there is no great physical effort involved in the short punch of a volley swing. "That's imposing herself on her opponent. It's intimidation big time."

There is something territorial about the way that Williams occupies these 13-and-a-half acres. Having spent the weekend hanging out at the polo with Prince Harry and the Duchess of Sussex, she can justly claim to be the queen of Wimbledon.

For the last time anyone beat her here, you have to go back to the third round of 2014, when Alize Cornet staged an unlikely ambush on this same No. 1 Court. Since then, Williams has clocked up 15 straight wins in a sequence that includes two titles and a tournament missed because she was in the final trimester of pregnancy.

After such a lengthy absence, she remains well short of peak form. But Rus - an athletic left-hander who scrambled well out of the corners - was never going to be allowed to interrupt her campaign before it has gathered momentum. "'I don't think I was at my best today," Williams said after her 7-5, 6-3 victory. "But hopefully I'll be able to get there."

This is where those bloodcurdling cries came in. We heard them for the first time in Paris five weeks ago, when Williams was a set and a break down to the unassuming Aussie Ashleigh Barty. Connecting with a crunching backhand return, she then perforated Barty's eardrums with her yell of celebration. You could almost see Barty's knees knock together, as if she had seen - or rather heard - a ghost.

Yesterday, Williams tried to get after Rus in the same way. When she forced an error to bring up 40-30 in the 11th game, she clenched her fist in front of her face. But rather than looking to her box in the normal fashion, she stared straight up the court at her opponent instead. As Navratilova pointed out on commentary, "That's when you know she really wants it, when she starts getting noisy like that."

To her credit, Rus didn't flinch, remaining locked in her own bubble of concentration. But the whole display clearly roused Williams, who found her most convincing strokeplay at the business end of both sets.

Elsewhere, Agnieszka Radwanska, a finalist in 2012, survived by the skin of her teeth to beat Elena-Gabriela Ruse.

The Pole saved six match points to win 6-3 4-6 7-5 and scrape through to the second round.

US Open champion Sloane Stephens crashed out after a straight-sets defeat to Donna Vekic. Stephens, who was also the runner-up at the French Open last month, was downed 6-1 6-3 by the unseeded Croatian. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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