You have to wonder what it was that Mandy Minella did wrong in a former life. You work your whole life to edge up the rankings until finally, in your mid-20s, you get your reward: a place in the world’s top 100. And then just as you settle into your digs in SW19, the draw comes out and you find yourself facing Serena Williams in the first round. Really, it just does not seem fair.
Then again, there are precious few players who would want to face the world No.1 at the moment. Williams is on a roll – 32 matches unbeaten after she clobbered poor Minella 6-1, 6-3 on Tuesday – and she is all but unstoppable. Since she lost in the first round of the French Open last year, she has lost just three matches and won a staggering 75. That run has earned her 11 titles including Wimbledon, the US and French Opens and the Olympic gold medal. She may be 31 years old but she is in the form of her life. There ain’t no arguing with that sort of pedigree.
Still, it was Minella’s job to try to find a way to halt the champion’s progress. Alas, what she brought to the court was not enough to make Williams break stride, much less stop, and by the time the lady from Luxembourg had got her bearings – ooh, that must be the Royal Box, ah, that’s where the fridge is, I wonder where you put your old banana skins? – the first set had whistled by her. It only took 20 minutes for Williams to storm into the lead 6-1 and now the startled onlookers were wondering just how quickly she could wrap this match up.
And that was when the world stopped turning.
Serena dropped her serve. A Centre Court crowd was stunned. Was this a portent of doom? Was civilisation about to crumble? Good grief – this was Serena we were talking about, the woman who had flattened all before her for the past 12 months. What was the world No.92 from Esch-sur-Alzette doing taking a 2-0 lead in the second set?
What she was doing was giving the champion a bit of a wake-up call and reminding her: “Don’t take your eye off the ball because I’m still here, you know.” And sure enough, the Minella in the second set was a far different character from the pale, nervous lass of the first. As she relaxed, she started to play better and Serena, in response, did nothing.
It did not last, mind you. With a mighty cry of “Come on!” she won a point against the Minella serve and used it as a launch pad to break back. Within a couple of minutes, she was back on level terms and order had been restored to the universe.
This threw the umpire, Lucy Grant, into a flat spin. “Miss Williams...” she began and then paused. “Two games all,” she continued sheepishly. Well, for the past year and a bit, Grant, like all umpires overseeing one of Williams’s matches, had got into the habit of beginning every score announcement with “Miss Williams leads...” It was an easy mistake to make.
As the world No.1 went on to crush the Minella service to love, she and Grant began to relax in to their regular winning routines. Williams went back to pounding her serve (fastest speed 121mph), racking up the winners and pulling rank on her rival. Grant, meanwhile, sounded mightily relieved to inform the crowd that “Miss Williams leads three games to two and by one set to love.” After 57 minutes it was game, set and match and Williams was safely through to the second round.
“I feel that I'm always ready,” the champion said. “You know, I never feel invincible. I always feel that I have to be ready for each opponent in each game, and I never become overconfident. I think when I do or if I do, that's the moment that I'm most vulnerable.”
From that we can deduce that Serena has not underestimated any of her 78 opponents in the past 12 months because at the moment, she looks about as vulnerable as a steam-roller crushing a marshmallow.
20:24...But boy, it was a barrow-load of fun. I hope you enjoyed it even half as much as we did. Thank you for all your messages throughout, you've been the glue holding us together as the edges frayed amid the madness. Now if you'll excuse me, it's time for us Brits to raise a toast to Andy Murray and Fred Perry. British sporting legends both.
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