The way Serena Williams began yesterday's third-round tie against Roberta Vinci suggested another ritual slaughter was imminent. Racket met ball nine times in the opening game, including a foul first serve, with the Italian making desperate contact just three times. As Williams blasted away, the gaggle of girls up in the stands with the homemade placard reading "WHACK IT! DON'T TAP IT" cheered approvingly.
However, Vinci pushed the match into a second hour, twice breaking Williams' serve, before losing 6-3, 6-4. This, though, may have had as much to do with Williams' head being in a spin as the world No 53's doughty spirit. It seemed bad enough that the No 2 seed had to make her own way to the distant Court Two, prompting a delayed start. "I thought someone would come get me, then I figured, 'maybe I just have to report'. I didn't know what to do," she said.
Equally unsettling was the impact of Michael Jackson's death. Williams, who met the singer several times, said she had read the news online late Thursday night.
"Words can't express my shock and horror," she said. "It's just terrible, terrible. The things he did were beyond iconic. I've been honoured enough to have met him a few times and it's really a shame. He had such a great heart and wonderful kids. It's surreal talking about him in the past tense. It doesn't seem real."
She added: "He was the ultimate celebrity. Any celebrity who met him was in complete awe. I know I was. I kept thinking, 'Oh my God, Oh my God. It's him, it's him'. I could barely speak. He played a video tennis game so we [Serena and her sister Venus] were like, 'wow, you know who we are!'"
In the circumstances Williams was simply relieved to reach the last 16. "I don't think I played great today at all. I'm just glad to have gotten through it and go on to the next match." That will be against Daniela Hantuchova on Monday, assuming the Slovakian conqueror of 16th-seed Jie Zheng recovers from the cold that sent her home after beating Ai Sugiyama, her doubles partner, 6-4, 6-3 yesterday. "She's a smooth player and she takes her time on court," said Williams. "I have to make sure I don't rush myself."
That comment was a revealing insight. The only player outside her own family likely to threaten Williams is Serena herself. Hantuchova's slow pace of play could trouble her in the same way that slow golfers drive Colin Montgomerie into self-destructive frustration, and slow potters infuriate Ronnie O'Sullivan.
Williams is a battler, but even the best suffer from self-doubt and when she faltered midway through the second set her father, Richard, called out "relax". Seconds later she was on her haunches, beating the turf with her racket and wailing in frustration after Vinci moved to 3-4.
The possibility of an upset beckoned, but Williams had always looked too powerful, a truth earlier acknowledged by Vinci when, following an exchange of drop-shots the pair found themselves each a yard from the net with Williams poised to smash. Vinci dropped to her knees and cowered behind her racket, Williams gently tapped the ball into the vacant court.
Thus it was that Williams' thunderous serve and forehand reasserted themselves. Serving for the match, the two-time Wimbledon champion delivered a brace of aces, then dispatched the third match point. The raincoat, which for once did not look out of place given the threatening clouds, went back on.
Although Hantuchova said: "I feel I have my chance, I've been playing well, we'll see", another Williams-Williams final is in the offing. Not everyone greets the sisters' power tennis with the same approval as that quartet of artistic schoolgirls, but there is much else to admire in their game.
Serena Williams has some shrewd and attractive cross-court shots and several wicked lobs. Nevertheless, it is the power you remember. Serena's admission of a fundamental flaw in her table-tennis game – it is the only other sport she plays her sister at – was no surprise. "I'm terrible at ping-pong," she said. "I hit too hard. I mean, the court's too small."Reuse content