Serena Williams a step closer to glorious Wimbledon return

American saw off French player Kristina Mladenovic to reach the fourth round at SW19

Serena Williams celebrates after beating Kristina Mladenovic 7-5, 7-6 in their women’s singles third round match on the fifth day of the 2018 Wimbledon Championships. Photo: Glyn Kirk/Getty Images

Serena Williams celebrates after beating Kristina Mladenovic 7-5, 7-6 in their women’s singles third round match on the fifth day of the 2018 Wimbledon Championships. Photo: Glyn Kirk/Getty Images

 

If anyone doubted Serena Williams was worth consideration as a winner of this tournament for an eighth time – let alone the 25th seeding that has caused a minor stir in the locker room – she provided the most emphatic statement of intent with her third straight-sets win of the week to reach the fourth round on a wave of growing self-belief.

“It’s going pretty well,” she said courtside in staggering understatement after beating the accomplished French player Kristina Mladenovic 7-5, 7-6 (2) in front of a Centre Court audience who had come to soak up the sun and the American’s glowing brilliance on Friday afternoon.

“I worked really, really hard. It’s been a long, arduous road. But I always expect to do the best I can do. Every opponent is playing her A game, as we’ve seen in this tournament. So many top players have lost – and technically I’m not a top player.”

Williams is allowed to say that in mock self-deprecation. Others will see it as nonsense, whatever the seedings say. The draw has opened up like the Red Sea on her side and she next meets the 29-year-old Russian Evgeniya Rodina, who played way above her 120 world ranking when she joined the Wimbledon giant-killers by putting out the 10th seed and US Open runner-up Madison Keys 7-5, 5-7, 6-4 in two hours and 10 minutes on No 3 Court.

Williams returns in the first set. Photo: Glyn Kirk/Getty Images
Williams returns in the first set. Photo: Glyn Kirk/Getty Images

Keys was the seventh of the top 10 seeds to lose before the middle Sunday, testimony to the strength of the women’s game or confirmation of Johanna Konta’s contention after her defeat against Dominika Cibulkova the previous evening that the seedings do not necessarily reflect the quality of the opponent?

Williams had to fight for her win, though. She began nervously, saving two break points, and cracked in the fifth game as Mladenovic powered through her serve for an early lead.

Struggling to stay in the set after half an hour, Williams found her huge serve just in time to hang on for 4-5. The pressure switched across the net as Mladenovic sought to seal the deal, but her first unforced error of the match, a dumped backhand as she twisted her right angle, preceded her second, an overcooked forehand – and they were back on level terms. That turned ankle was also the turning point of the match. Williams held without fuss and, after holding three set points, then another after deuce, broke when Mladenovic strove for an ace down the middle and double-faulted.

Four games into the second set, Mladenovic was hanging on desperately to her serve and Williams had the familiar air of queen of Wimbledon, where she has won seven singles titles, most recently two years ago before taking most of 2017 off for the arrival of her first child in September.

They traded breaks mid-set and Mladenovic did well to hold from 15-40 in the 10th game – just seven points from going out of the tournament. Williams struck her 10th and 11th aces to hold, and Mladenovic was under the cosh again. Two exquisite winners gave her hope of survival but two double faults betrayed her nerves. This would have been a wretched way to leave and she managed to force an error on the backhand from Williams to reach deuce.

A delightfully switched drop shot out of the reach of her opponent got her to within a point of safety, but her serving hand trembled again as Williams grabbed her first match point. Again, the French player survived and a solid serve down the middle forced the tie-break.

Williams and Mladenovic shake hands at the end. Photo: Peter Nicholls/Reuters
Williams and Mladenovic shake hands at the end. Photo: Peter Nicholls/Reuters

The shootout was made for Williams, the greatest server in the business. She raced to 4-0 before an errant forehand gave Mladenovic a sliver of encouragement, but there was nothing she could do about an explosive cross-court backhand on the run, and they crossed at 5-1 to Williams. Another ace, her 12th, gave her match point and a 13th the match.

Her reappearance here has invested the tournament with much of its old majesty. She is 36 and, against all odds, approaching the level that has brought her 23 grand slam titles, one short of the all-time record held by Margaret Court. Kim Clijsters took three tournaments to get back to winning a major after giving birth to her first child. Williams is moving and hitting as if she could do it at the first attempt. She truly is a wonder. – Guardian service

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