After a week filled by a headline-grabbing, off-court tiff with Maria Sharapova and a series of apologies stemming from a magazine profile, Serena Williams got back to doing what she does best.
Better than anyone in the world right now, really.
Extending her winning streak to 32 matches, the longest single-season run on the women’s tour since 2000, Williams began her bid for a sixth Wimbledon championship and 17th Grand Slam title overall with a 6-1, 6-3 victory over 92nd-ranked Mandy Minella of Luxembourg on Tuesday.
“You can call her pretty much unbeatable,” Minella said. “She’s playing better than ever. ... Every time she steps on court, you can see why.”
And yet Williams, the defending champion at the All England Club, and Patrick Mouratoglou, the French coach who’s been helping her during the current 75-3 stretch that dates to the start of Wimbledon last year, both gave this assessment: There are areas of her game that could use some fine-tuning.
“After (Tuesday), there’s so many ways that I can improve,” the No. 1-ranked and No. 1-seeded Williams said, “and that I’m going to need to improve if I want to be in the second week of this tournament.”
Really? How about some examples?
“Come on,” Williams replied, tilting her head and smiling.
Here was Mouratoglou’s take after watching Williams win her first 17 service points and compile a 25-5 edge in total winners on Centre Court: “I mean, of course, not everything is perfect yet. It’s interesting to see what we need to work on for the (coming) days.”
They also agreed that she did not have too hard a time setting aside the events of the previous seven days, which included a lot of saying “I’m sorry” – face-to-face with Sharapova, at a news conference, in two separate statements posted on the web – over things Williams was quoted as saying in a Rolling Stone story. Williams made a negative reference in a phone conversation to a top-five player’s love life (the piece’s author surmised that was about Sharapova) and an off-the-cuff remark about a widely publicized rape case in the U.S. that was perceived by some as criticizing the victim.
“It hasn’t been a distraction,” Williams insisted. “I’m just here to focus on the tennis.”
All in all, by easily winning her first match since winning the French Open on June 8, she helped restore order at Wimbledon 24 hours after a chaotic Day 1 that included the only first-round Grand Slam loss of 12-time major champion Rafael Nadal’s career and a scary-looking, knee-twisting tumble by two-time Australian Open winner Victoria Azarenka during her win.
The highest-seeded player to depart Tuesday was No. 10 Maria Kirilenko, beaten 6-3, 6-4 by teenager Laura Robson, the first British woman to beat a top-10 player at Wimbledon in 15 years. Of the 10 local players who entered the tournament, Robson and reigning U.S. Open champion Andy Murray, last year’s runner-up at the All England Club, are the only two left.
“It’s hard for all the British players to come in here and, you know, lose first round,” said Robson, who beat Kim Clijsters at the 2012 U.S. Open in the last match of the four-time major champion’s career. “Because you just feel extra disappointed.”
Other women winning easily included No. 4 Agnieszka Radwanska, the 2012 runner-up to Williams; 2011 French Open champion Li Na; and No. 7 Angelique Kerber, who eliminated Bethanie Mattek-Sands of the U.S. 6-3, 6-4.
Nadal’s straight-set loss to 135th-ranked Steve Darcis was still a main topic of conversation, and top-seeded Novak Djokovic called it a reminder that “you cannot take anything or anybody for granted.”
“To be honest, I was expecting him to be a bit rusty on the court,” Djokovic said. “In the opening rounds, obviously, it’s very dangerous for top players who haven’t been playing on grass. ... On the other side of the net is somebody that is lower ranked, he has nothing to lose, so he’s going for his shots.”
As Djokovic dispatched 34th-ranked Florian Mayer of Germany 6-3, 7-5, 6-4, the only real hitch was when he slipped to the Centre Court grass. No. 4 David Ferrer, who reached his first Grand Slam final at the French Open but lost to Nadal, took two falls and said he felt a “little bit of pain” in his left ankle during a 6-1, 4-6, 7-5, 6-2 victory over 101st-ranked Martin Alund of Argentina.
Sam Querrey, an American seeded 21st, lost 7-6 (6), 7-6 (3), 3-6, 2-6, 6-3 to 59th-ranked Australian Bernard Tomic in a match most noteworthy for what was said afterward.
Tomic ripped the ATP for barring his father, who is also his coach, from attending tournaments for 12 months because of pending assault charges and said he’ll ask Wimbledon to let Dad attend his next match. Querrey, meanwhile, was miffed that Tomic got a chance to collect himself while being checked by trainers after saying he felt lightheaded in the fourth set.
“I knew he was kind of dizzy, but let’s go; it’s a physical game,” Querrey said. “That’s part of it. If you’re dizzy or hurt, you’ve got to play through it. You can’t just take breaks. That’s not why I lost. But I felt I had some momentum there and that leveled the playing field for the fifth set.”
It’s been difficult for any opponent to close against Williams lately, even if she claimed Tuesday, “I never feel invincible.”
Her practice-makes-perfect pledge might give future opponents pause, starting with Caroline Garcia, who will face Williams in the second round for the second Grand Slam tournament in a row. After losing to Williams 6-1, 6-2 at the French Open last month, Garcia made these observations: “I need to work on my game to pose more problems for her next time” and “She hits hard.”
You don’t say.
Dealing with serves that came in at up to 121 mph (195 kph) – that readout on the speed clock prompted murmuring among impressed spectators – Minella managed to put only half of her returns in play.
“When I stood right in front of her, I looked at her and not at the ball at the beginning. Because it’s just unreal; because I’ve never played against this type of player. It’s a lot of stuff you have to deal with,” Minella said.
“The strength and the heavy spin of her serve is definitely better than anyone else, I would say,” Minella added. “It is different from what I’ve seen. But it’s also because it’s too good. ... Many other players wouldn’t reach the ball (Tuesday).”
Still, for a brief moment, Minella appeared to be getting into the match. A double-fault by Williams handed over a break that gave Minella a 2-0 lead in the second set. Serving at 40-30 in the next game, Minella was a point from a 3-0 edge.
That’s when Williams got her act together, producing a cross-court backhand winner to get to deuce while taking 15 of 18 points to go ahead 4-2.
“In these moments,” Minella observed, “she can raise her level.”