A tournament apparently immune from major surprises underwent a second, more seismic shock in as many days, when Serena Williams followed Li Na out of the women's singles, beaten by Alize Cornet of France 1-6, 6-3, 6-4. It is the first time in the open era that the top two seeds have both taken their leave from Wimbledon before the fourth round.
A tournament apparently immune from major surprises underwent a second, more seismic shock in as many days, when Serena Williams followed Li Na out of the women’s singles, beaten by Alizé Cornet of France 1-6, 6-3, 6-4. It is the first time in the open era that the top two seeds have both taken their leave from Wimbledon before the fourth round.
The same thing happened to the same players even earlier at the French Open, when the great beneficiary was Maria Sharapova, who went on to win it and is now strongly fancied to do so here for the first time since 2004.
It all left Williams feeling as bereft as the East Midland punter who bet £100,000 yesterday on her winning at 10-1 on. Those odds indicated how lightly the bookmakers regarded the 24-year-old from Nice, and when she lost the first set 6-1 after a long rain break, the chances of an upset looked even more remote.
Asked last night for an explanation of the turn-around, Williams could only offer: “I don’t know. I tried but it just didn’t work out. I think everyone plays the match of their life against me. She kept her unforced errors low and I made a few too many.”
Everything had long pointed to a quarter-final meeting of the big beasts – if the ladies concerned will forgive the phrase – but where Sharapova recovered from a slow start to defeat the American Alison Riske, Williams did the
opposite, falling 5-0 behind in the second set and never quite recovering.
Vast experience gained over the past 17 years and during five Wimbledon triumphs might still have seen her through in the final set, which she began by holding serve just, in a first game lasting a quarter of an hour. Cornet, ranked 24 in the world, seemed to be missing her chances but was able to draw on the memory of a victory over Williams in Doha earlier this year.
She repeatedly drew her opponent to the net and then passed her, which helped set up a crucial break and a 3-2 lead. With Williams growing more erratic, a second break followed for 5-2. At 5-4 Cornet looked to be wobbling but the top seed played another erratic game, changed her racked halfway through without changing her luck, and was beaten.
Earlier, Sharapova slowly accelerated against the American Riske and was out of sight long before the end in winning 6-3, 6-0, taking the last 11 games in succession from being unexpectedly 3-1 down.
It turned into one of those women’s matches in which a reasonably even first set goes the way of the stronger player, who then runs away with the second to love as an opponent wilts .
In defeating Samantha Murray, the British wildcard, and Timea Bacsinszky, a qualifier, the Russian had conceded only four games in as many sets. Last week she bemoaned the difficulty in adjusting from clay to grass, so such an easy ride to start the week was welcome, especially coming after Roland Garros, where the phrase “hard-earned” barely did justice to her eventual triumph: coming from a set down in three successive matches before winning the final in another three-setter against the Romanian Simona Halep, No 3 seed here who is also through.
“I felt better as the match went on,” Sharapova said, “having a little bit of a slow start but happy I got there. I never look at the weather forecast but I’m certainly happy to get my match in and just happy to be in the second week after last year.”
That reference was to her shock defeat in the second round here by qualifier Michelle Larcher de Brito last year, a result that remains all the more inexplicable as this year’s progress continues.
The atmosphere under the roof was slightly eerie with extra unwanted echo for the Sharapova shriek and what might be described as more of a gasp on every shot from her opponent. The crowd grew into it as the American, far from Riske-averse, went for her shots and produced an unexpected first few games before collapsing. Settling immediately into unfamiliar surroundings, she broke serve in the very first game and led 3-1 from where it went all downhill very fast indeed. The break back for 3-3 came on a double fault, and two service winners gave Sharapova a fifth game in a row and the first set after 42 minutes’ play.
Right at the start of the second set she produced two glorious running passes for an immediate break, consolidated by winning the next game with the sort of shot – a rush to the net and crashing overhead volley –that made a psychological as well as mathematical point.
Riske was now being run all over the court, and by that time it was a matter of saving face and avoiding a bagel, which, sadly, she could not manage. Sharapova now plays ninth seed Angelique Kerber and will be favourite; even if a £100,000 wager is not advised.
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