Serena still bullish after unconvincing performance

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The Independent Online

Serena Williams is a Wayne Rooney fan. But then, these days, who isn't? Although even Mrs Rooney may struggle to agree with the champion's assessment yesterday that the teenage England striker is "a real sweetie". Appearances, it seems, are in the eye of the beholder and the 6-3, 6-1 score which ushered Williams into the second round contained its own flattering comparisons. The victory suggests the usual routine first-round mauling of a cannon-fodder opponent but, despite Williams wearing a dress with a Roman Gladiator-style trim, Jie Zheng was no easy kill in the Colosseum of the Centre Court.

Serena Williams is a Wayne Rooney fan. But then, these days, who isn't? Although even Mrs Rooney may struggle to agree with the champion's assessment yesterday that the teenage England striker is "a real sweetie". Appearances, it seems, are in the eye of the beholder and the 6-3, 6-1 score which ushered Williams into the second round contained its own flattering comparisons. The victory suggests the usual routine first-round mauling of a cannon-fodder opponent but, despite Williams wearing a dress with a Roman Gladiator-style trim, Jie Zheng was no easy kill in the Colosseum of the Centre Court.

The nimble 21-year-old Chinese, on her Grand Slam and not just her Wimbledon debut, and ranked 52 in the world, proved to be a fighter. She clearly likes to hug the baseline and it showed why as she punched out her ground-strokes with increasing levels of surprising velocity for someone standing at 5ft 4in in her peaked cap. That the two-set contest lasted 67 minutes confirmed the admirable resistance she showed.

It isn't just football that Williams, the No 1 seed, is into of course - "I can't believe I'm talking the lingo here," she said after musing on the offside rule and why footballers always fell over - and some observers have questioned her commitment to her own sport of late. Fashion, film and injury have compounded matters. Indeed, Williams has a film out this autumn called Beauty Shop - her big-screen debut after her first cameo effort two years ago was left on the cutting-room floor - but it's her tennis that is in need of a little cosmetic treatment now.

When that was discussed at her post-match press conference she bridled. Fourteen unforced errors from rallies in the second set alone was a cause for concern and led to four deuce games. But Williams was having none of it. "You guys are going to coach me now?" she asked the assembled press when pressed on her mistakes. "You're going to talk about unforced errors?" She added: "I'm playing good. I wanted to come to the net a lot. You never hear me saying I'm playing good. So that's pretty confident and bold for me to say." It was also bold to say she wanted to play at the net. In fact, she appeared reluctant to do so - and when she did she was, at times, passed with alarming ease.

There was little sign of discomfort in the first two games, in which Zheng scraped a single point. Indeed, in the third game of the set an unforced error by Williams was applauded by a crowd fearing that the match was going to be even shorter than an episode of The Simpsons (the US cartoon series in which Williams has also appeared).

They need not have worried. The mistake encouraged Zheng, although the first rally of substance ended with a clubbing forehand from the champ. Resistance? Don't even think about it appeared to be the message. It went unheeded. Zheng, who was briefly the first Chinese woman for five years to break the top 50, was not to be undone, although she profited somewhat perversely from her powder-puff serve. So weak was it that it became a weapon. Williams was forced to find the power she needed from her own sinews. It meant she often over-hit the shots.

Too often this season Williams has missed the lines, miscuing returns and seeing ground-strokes thud long or between the tram-lines. Her footwork has been clumsy, her motivation apparently lacking. Perhaps it all became too easy and, with her acting ambitions, there were too many distractions, especially as Williams missed eight months of the circuit and has slipped to 10th in the world. The power is still there. The precision is not.

But, ultimately, Williams was right to be pleased. "The most special thing I think (is) coming back as a champ," she said and her determination showed. Twice she retrieved her own service games from 0-40, saving eight break points. Zheng will rue a weak forehand into the net, in particular, when 30-40 in the fourth game. At 4-3 in the first Williams finally went through the gears to seal the set with two forehand smashes.

Zheng was easily overpowered by the Serena serve in the opening game of the second, but fought for every point even if she could not, ultimately, find a way through. She was always playing catch-up. Whether Williams gains a hat-trick of titles is unclear. The draw has been kind, but a possible quarter-final meeting with Jennifer Capriati, who beat her at the French and Italian Opens, could be tricky. Before that Williams will play her second-round match tomorrow, hours, of course, before Rooney also steps onto the turf in Portugal.

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