Wimbledon 2018: Serena Williams flies champions’ flag as Keys and Muguruza join purge of seeds
Former Wimbledon champion Serena Williams eases to a straight sets victory over Kristina Mladenovic to reach the quarter-finals
Of the eight women seeded to reach the quarter-finals of this year’s Championships, only two remained in contention before the first week was over.
The defending champion Garbine Muguruza, who many saw as a strong candidate to retain the title here, found herself on Court 2, playing at the end of a long schedule of matches.
Had Naomi Osaka and Novak Djokovic not raced through their wins, perhaps Muguruza’s contest against the 47-ranked Alison van Uytvanck would have been scheduled elsewhere and earlier. As it was, as the light began to dim at 8.45pm, and with the plug being pulled on the only other matches on court, Muguruza made mistakes and van Uytvanck served out the win after almost two hours.
It completed a purging of the top women’s seeds that began in the first round with No8 Petra Kvitova, No6 Caroline Garcia, No4 Sloane Stephens and No5 Elina Svitolina, and continued in the second round with No2 Caroline Wozniacki.
Stephens and Wozniacki, reigning Major champions, even had the chance to claim the No1 ranking if they made it to the final. No more: Simona Halep, French Open champion, will hold her spot—and held strong in the draw with two straight-sets wins.
Many other seeds departed early, too. Johanna Konta, a semi-finalist last year, made it to the second round, and Maria Sharapova joined fellow former Wimbledon champions Muguruza and Kvitova in falling at the first hurdle.
And so, by the third round, 32 seeds had become 18, but among the ‘survivors’ were the two most prolific Major champions in the draw, who command 30 singles titles between them, and the two most prolific Wimbledon champions, with a combined tally of 12. They also happen to have won six doubles titles here—together. They are, of course, the sisters Williams, Serena and Venus.
The younger Serena, who will be 37 in September, won her 23rd Major only 18 months ago—while already two months pregnant—and won the title here in her last two visits.
However, the woman who reached 319 weeks at No1 little more than a year ago—the oldest woman to do so—had played only seven matches since going on maternity leave, and had some serious post-birth problems into the bargain.
Yet in this, only her fourth tournament since her return in March, she was already into the discussion about a possible champion, and all the more so after two relatively straightforward wins here and the loss of six seeds from her section. She was, after all, only seeded 25—a discretionary seeding to compensate for her lowly 181 ranking.
Now she took on the dangerous French woman, Kristina Mladenovic, who was ranked at 62 after enjoying her best-ever season in 2017 and a career-high ranking of 10 before she picked up a knee injury.
It took Mladenovic a while to turn a corner, regain her confidence, but she arrived here with a couple of decent grass matches, and two good wins in the Wimbledon draw. Her problem was that, despite not having to face No5 seed Svitolina in the second round, she picked up Serena in the third.
Perhaps surprisingly, the two had only met once before, and that on the French Open clay two years ago—a win for Williams. This would be the same, but a longer and tougher examination of Serena.
Indeed it was Williams who looked the slower in the early stages, and Mladenovic broke in the fifth game, and served for the set at 5-4—only to be broken. The French woman wavered again on serve, double faulted on a fourth break point to concede the set, 7-5.
There was an early exchange of breaks in the second set, and each had chances to break again through the tightly fought games. This would need a tie-break, and once with her back against the wall, Serena was immaculate. She raced to 5-1, and closed it out with two aces, 7-7(2), after an hour and 50 minutes.
Remarkably, even before Williams and Mladenovic played, the only other seed in their quarter and their next scheduled opponent, had lost. Madison Keys, who was a quarter-finalist here at the age of 20, three years ago, and runner-up at the US Open last year, arrived with a strong run at Roland Garros too. As the big seeds fell, many turned their eyes to the powerful all-court game of No10 seed Keys as a possible dark horse.
It was not to be. She broke to lead in the first set, only to see Evgeniya Rodina surge back for the set, 7-5 and take a 4-0 lead in the second. Then it was Keys’ turn to surge back: she took the second, 7-5. But in sweltering conditions, the Russian qualifier, ranked 120, exchanged breaks with Keys before getting the decisive break to serve out the win, 6-4.
It so happens that Rodina is, with Williams, one of four mothers in this quarter—and now the two that were ranked outside the top 100 would contest a quarter-final place.
So what about Venus, a woman making her 21st appearance at Wimbledon, and at 38, the oldest woman in the draw? Hard to believe that, after being diagnosed in 2011 with Sjögrens Syndrome, she slipped outside the top 100, and did not make it past the third round at a Major until the quarter-finals of Australia in 2015.
But bounce back she did, making the semis here in 2016, and last year she reached the finals of both Australia and Wimbledon and the semis of the US Open. So she was seeded No9 this year but happened to be in a quarter where the majority of the seeds had survived.
She took on No20 Kiki Bertens, a real test. Witness their only previous match, a 5-7, 6-3, 7-5 win for Williams in Miami this March. This one would prove to be just as long, just as intense.
Perhaps what Venus did not need was another long match, however. Her first two had gone to three sets and taken two hours apiece. This one would go longer still.
Bertens had Venus on the run early, broke, and broke again for 3-0, and continued to break down the usually formidable serve of the big American to go 5-1. Venus managed one more game but was dominated by the fast, varied tennis of the Dutch woman, 6-2.
Indeed Venus looked down and out midway through the second set: Bertens broke for a 4-2 lead. But that is to underestimate the fighting spirit of this former champion. A break back made it 4-4, another break apiece and it was 5-5: It would take a tie-break.
There, Venus raced to a lead, 5-1, rushed to the net for two fine volley winners, 6-3, and as Bertens closed the gap, served out the set, 7-6(5).
In the final set, neither woman gave an inch, this time no breaks, though Venus fought off two break points for 4-4. This time no tie-break either when they reached 6-6. Bertens had the advantage of serving first, so Venus was up against it big time as she faced deuce after deuce, courtesy of great strikes to the baseline corners from Bertens.
Three match-points came and went, with Venus going for the lines to stay on level terms. Finally, though, one last error, her 36th of the match, and she too was out of the draw—but it had been a close thing.
Of course, every cloud has a silver lining, and with so many top-ranked women leaving the draw early, some opportunities have opened up for new names. A number of players outside the top 100 made it to the third round; As well as Rodina and Williams, of course, there are No132 Vitalia Diatchenko and No101 Yanina Wickmayer—though the later went out to another non-seed, Donna Vekic.
But by the end of Friday, eight of the top 10 seeds had gone, with only world No1 Halep standing proud at the top and No7 Karolina Pliskova fighting for her life against No29 seed, Mihaela Buzarnescu.