On Tennis: As Serena Williams Rolls, It’s Tempting to Think About No. 24

WIMBLEDON, England — It was the overstuffed day they call Manic Monday at Wimbledon, and yet Serena Williams seemed so unflustered.

See a soft second serve. Crush it.

Need an ace. Deliver it.

The suspense was gone shortly after her fourth-round match began, and in 62 minutes it was over for real as Williams defeated the Russian qualifier Evgeniya Rodina, 6-2, 6-2.

Williams is back in the quarterfinals at the All England Club without having had to face anyone ranked in the top 60. Next up on Tuesday: No. 52 Camila Giorgi of Italy.

Win that, and Williams’s semifinal opponent would be No. 13 seed Julia Görges or No. 20 seed Kiki Bertens, neither of whom had been past the third round at Wimbledon until this year.

Win that, and Williams would be guaranteed not to face a top-10 seed in the final. They’re all gone after seventh-seeded Karolina Pliskova’s 6-3, 7-6 (1) loss to Bertens on Monday.

After all Williams has been through of late — pregnancy, post-delivery complications, struggles to drop weight and a fresh injury at last month’s French Open — could her record-tying 24th Grand Slam singles title really turn out to be this straightforward?

“It’s an incredibly favorable draw,” said Tracy Austin, the former No. 1 player who is now an incisive television analyst. “I don’t think she’s in the best spot she’s been in in her career, but with who is left in the draw, I think she’s in a very good spot to win.”

That is undeniable. This has been a wild and unpredictable women’s tournament, and it will now be the first Grand Slam event in the 50 years of Open tennis where there will be no top-10 seed in the women’s quarterfinals. It is also the first time this has happened at Wimbledon since seeding began in the 1920s.

But those statistics, however irresistible, do not paint the entire picture. How can it be true chaos with Williams still in the frame?

She might be ranked 181st and seeded 25th as she works her way back from maternity leave, but she has won seven Wimbledon singles titles and is on an 18-match winning streak at the All England Club.

There is also Angelique Kerber to consider. She is a former No. 1 and a Wimbledon finalist, who is seeded 11th but ranked 10th, and she is back to playing sparkling tennis on grass.

“On a technicality, we still have one player in the top 10,” Williams said on Monday, perhaps trying to tap the brakes on runaway expectations.

But then she did not exactly play down her own chances when she was asked if she would have liked to face a seeded player at this stage to get a clearer sense of her level.

“I faced a thousand and three seeds in my life,” Williams, 36, said. “So I’m O.K.”

In the other half of the draw, Kerber will face Daria Kasatkina, the No. 14 seed from Russia, in one quarterfinal. In the other, No. 12 Jelena Ostapenko will face Dominika Cibulkova.

A Williams-Kerber final sounds like a fine idea: It would be a rematch of their compelling 2016 final here, won by Williams, 7-5, 6-4. But in the plot twist department, there would be no beating a final between Williams and Cibulkova, the feisty Slovak who was bumped out of the 32nd and final seeding position by the All England Club’s decision to seed Williams.

“That would be something,” Austin said with a chuckle.

But before we continue riffing on possibilities for Saturday’s final, it is perhaps best to refocus on Tuesday, when Williams has to face Giorgi, who might be unseeded but is hardly unknown to the world’s leading women.

She has defeated Caroline Wozniacki, Maria Sharapova, Victoria Azarenka and Garbiñe Muguruza — all former No. 1 players.

In 2015, Giorgi was two points away from an upset victory over Williams’s big sister Venus in the third round of the Australian Open before losing in three sets. Last month at the French Open, Giorgi twice served for the match against Sloane Stephens in the third round before Stephens fought back and went on to reach the final.

Giorgi had beaten Stephens in their two previous meetings, so such a tight match was not what Stephens’s coach, Kamau Murray, would call a scare.

“Scare is when you show up expecting one thing and get another,” he said. “Sloane probably slept a little less that night, and so did I.”

At 5-foot-5, Giorgi is hardly imposing physically, but she is very quick and possesses world-class power, which she generates with remarkable racket-head speed and an attacking mentality. She can punch and counterpunch with her forehand or two-handed backhand and, most surprisingly, can serve at speeds generally reserved for players with more evident leverage.

Giorgi’s average first serve speed on Monday in her 6-3, 6-4 victory over Ekaterina Makarova was 110 miles per hour, faster than Williams’s average of 106 against Rodina.

The gap in second-serve speed was even wider. Giorgi averaged 97 m.p.h. to Williams’s 88, but that pace also comes with increased risk. Giorgi has served 38 double faults in this tournament — significantly more than any player, female or male.

“I can’t complain about my serve; I think it’s a great shot, one of my best shots,” said Giorgi, who said she was happy to live with the fallout. “It’s my game to play more aggressive and do more mistakes, but I will not change that. Yes to improve, but not change.”

But Giorgi has one career tour title for a reason, several in fact. She is inconsistent and sometimes brittle under pressure. She also has yet to win a set in her three previous matches against Williams and is now in uncharted territory: At age 26, she will be playing her first Grand Slam singles quarterfinal.

But Austin said she had seen some slight modifications to Giorgi’s grip-it-and-rip-it approach.

“Before it was just power, power, power, but now she’ll put a little more spin on her shots,” Austin said.

Giorgi is also increasingly interested in pushing forward and taking advantage of the openings her baseline bolts can produce. She has been to the net 104 times in four rounds, more than any other woman in the tournament and twice as often as Williams.

To sum up, it could be a genuine tussle, and what is also intriguing is that this is the only match at this year’s Wimbledon where Williams will not get a day of rest before she plays it.

But she was hardly pushed on Monday against Rodina in the sunshine. She struck the ball very cleanly, even on the stretch, and hit the spots with her ultimate weapon — the serve — when she needed them most.

It was easy to forget that this is only Williams’s fourth tournament since she returned to the WTA tour in March; easy to forget the disappointment on her face as she announced her withdrawal from the French Open with a pectoral injury before facing Sharapova in the fourth round.

At this stage of her career, another unexpected injury or roadblock is hardly out of the question, but her path looked so very smooth on Manic Monday.

And a 24th Grand Slam singles title, which would tie Margaret Court for the record, is now just three matches away.

Post Comment

five − four =