You are never too old to learn and Serena Williams admitted yesterday that the experience of her shocking first-round loss in the French Open last month helped her through another major test here on Centre Court yesterday. Just four weeks after losing in the opening round for the first time in her 47 Grand Slam tournaments – the 30-year-old American was beaten in Paris by Virginie Razzano, the world No 111 – Williams was pushed to the limit by China's Jie Zheng before winning 6-7, 6-2, 9-7.
"I was definitely way more calm today than I was in my last long match," Williams said after needing nearly two and a half hours to beat Zheng, a former Wimbledon semi-finalist. "I thought: 'Serena, just relax and be calm'. I felt good. I never felt like I was going to lose this match."
In the modern game there is no substitute for power and a key to Williams' victory was her bludgeoning serve, delivered at speeds of up to 119mph, which was 18mph quicker then Zheng's best. Williams' 23 aces – Zheng hit just one – were a record for a women's match at Wimbledon, beating the previous mark of 20 which the American herself had set again Elena Dementieva three years ago. Zheng did well to force six break points, but the world No 27 was unable to convert any of them.
Williams' regular flow of free points on her serve compensated for her struggles in the breezy conditions. She returned poorly, made frequent errors and her footwork often looked clumsy as she failed to adjust when the ball moved in the swirling wind. Zheng, in contrast, moved beautifully, scampering to all corners of the court and repeatedly wrong-footing the former Wimbledon champion.
"I just wasn't making my returns," Williams said. "I hit so many errors off the returns. I was just off. Usually I'm returning really, really well. I just have to make sure that I can do better. I think she played really well, unbelievable, but I still think I can play better."
She added: "I just wanted to get through that match. The last thing I wanted to do was lose. I felt good. I felt she's always playing really well, especially on the grass. She really should be ranked higher than what she is."
There were no breaks of serve in a tight first set. The three break points that went unconverted were all forced by Zheng. When Williams fought back from 3-0 down to 3-2 in the tie-break the American bellowed out a roar of "Come on!" but at 5-5 she put a forehand in the net after failing to get in position to play the shot. On the following point a missed backhand gave Zheng the set after 52 minutes.
From 2-1 down in the second set, however, Williams at last began to find some rhythm. She broke serve twice, won 13 points in succession to take the set and seemed to have averted any sort of crisis.
Zheng, nevertheless, fought back with commendable spirit. Williams had to recover from 0-40 down to hold serve in the fourth game, celebrating the point for deuce with a clenched fist, and later in the set served to stay in the tournament three times. On each occasion she did so by holding to love, the last time with four successive unreturned serves.
Although Zheng had also been holding serve with comparative ease, it always looked to be only a matter of time before the Chinese would crack under a Williams assault. That moment arrived at 7-7. Zheng saved one break point with a fine forehand, but could do nothing about the second as Williams launched into a huge return of serve.
Zheng made a bold attempt to reply in kind when Williams went 40-15 up in serving for the match. The Chinese hit a brave backhand return winner off a 117mph serve on the first match point and forced the American into an error with another big return on the second. Two points later, however, Williams hit a match-winning volley, upon which she leapt into the air in joyful celebration.
Zheng said: "After we finished the match she just told me: 'You are crazy. You are crazy'. It was a tough match because she has a big serve. I think it's very difficult against her on a grass court."
Williams, who had the actor Dustin Hoffman among her entourage, now plays Yaroslava Shvedova, who yesterday became the first woman in the Open era to win a "golden set", winning all 24 points in the first set against recent French Open finalist Sara Errani from Italy. "Hopefully I'll be able to win a point in the set," Williams said with a smile. "That will be my first goal, and then I'll go from there."
As Williams was toiling on Centre Court, Petra Kvitova was easing to an overwhelming 6-1, 6-0 victory over Varvara Lepchenko. The defending champion, who has dropped just 13 games in her first three matches, had too much power for the world No 53, who was born and raised in Uzbekistan but was granted US citizenship earlier this year.
Kvitova, who has been troubled by injuries, has not won a title this year and lost in her first match at Eastbourne in her only warm-up tournament on grass. "That's why I didn't think that I could get ready in such a short time to have a good game on the grass," she said. "But every round when I've played it's been better."
The 22-year-old Czech now meets Italy's Francesca Schiavone, the 2010 French Open champion, whose best performance at Wimbledon was when she reached the last eight three years ago. Thereafter a clash of the giants is looming in the quarter-finals, in which Kvitova is seeded to meet Williams.
Victoria Azarenka, the world No 2, has drawn so little attention here this year that not one member of the world's press have requested to speak to her after her first three matches. The Belarusian, a semi-finalist last year, is through to the fourth round after a 6-3, 6-3 victory over Slovakia's Jana Cepelova 6-3, 6-3. She now faces former world No 1 Ana Ivanovic, who came from behind to beat Julia Goerges 3-6, 6-3, 6-4.