Saturday 20 January 2018

Wimbledon: Williams aces her third-round exam

Simon Briggs at Wimbledon

THE ace-meister Lukas Rosol may have made his final bow at this year's Wimbledon, but we saw a surprising return to slam-bam tennis yesterday on Centre Court, as Serena Williams served her way into the fourth round.

Williams sent down 23 aces in her 6-7 6-2 9-7 win over Zheng Jie -- the highest tally she had reached in 633 outings of a glorious career, and the most ever in a women's match at Wimbledon.

It was a good thing that she managed to find her range on the serve, because the rest of her game was distinctly ropey. Her forehand, in particular, delivered a bunch of such inexplicable errors that her standard response was to sit down on the court in despair.

Zheng is a tricky opponent if you're not quite in sync, because she never misses and runs for everything. But despite one run to the Wimbledon semi-finals four years ago, she shouldn't have enough gunpowder in her trunk to knock the second-favourite off course.

The trouble was that, while Williams never gave up a service break in the entirety of this 2hr 28min epic, neither did she manage to return many of Zheng's rather less ferocious deliveries.

Standing 5ft 5ins tall, Zheng would barely come up to Ivo Karlovic's belly-button. Her average first-serve speed was 88mph, which is around the level that Andy Murray was clocking when he had his debilitating back spasm in Paris last month. So it was remarkable that this match began to take on the dynamic of a big-serving contest, as if it were being played between Boris Becker and Goran Ivanisevic. Lose your serve once, and that was probably the set gone for good.

"I just wasn't making my returns," said Williams, who enjoyed the support of actor Dustin Hoffman in her player's box. "I hit so many errors. So my serve definitely helped me out today, and it was good to know that I could rely on that."

As the third set went into overtime, Zheng had a couple of moments when she stood within two points of victory, just as Julien Benneteau had against Roger Federer on Friday night. But that was as close as she came, as Williams managed to find her focus whenever the situation grew desperate.

That was the big difference between this win and her first-round exit at the hands of France's Virginie Razzano in Paris last month -- another match where her service return turned dysfunctional.

"I was definitely way more calm today than I was in my last long match and the loss," she said. "I thought, 'Serena, just relax'. I never felt like I was going to lose."

It may have helped Williams that the Centre Court crowd gave her plenty of encouragement yesterday, whereas the Parisians had been entirely against her. The whole mood of this match summed up the difference between Roland Garros -- with its fanaticism and its unhinged passion -- and the serene, patrician acres of Wimbledon.

Not that Williams was at all blase about the outcome. As she started to turn the screw on Zheng in the final moments, we saw her jackknife over as if stricken by stomach cramps -- though in fact this was an extreme version of the doubled-up fist-pump popularised by Maria Sharapova among others.

When she finally closed it out, floating a volley into the open court on her third match point, she leapt high into the air, giving the photographers a dramatic view of her natty purple undershorts.

Next up will be Yaroslava Shvedova, the Kazakh who has had a magnificent month after reaching the quarter-finals of the French Open. And Williams had better make sure she has calibrated her service return by then, because Shvedova is one of the heavier hitters on the women's tour.

Yesterday, Shvedova caught everyone's attention by whitewashing Sara Errani by 24 points to zero in the first set of their match. It was a remarkable statistical achievement that Williams took a moment or two to compute.

"She's such a solid player," Williams said. "So I look forward to it. Hopefully I'll be able to win a point in the set. That will be my first goal, and then I'll go from there."

So the dream final of Williams v Sharapova is still a possibility. Perhaps this match will be the narrow escape that kicks Williams's whole game -- and not just her serve -- into the grass-court groove she used to find without thinking.


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