Hotter than July – that’s the kind of favourite Serena Williams is to lift the Venus Rosewater Dish for a sixth time.
Nineteen-year-old qualifier Caroline Garcia was permitted just three games when she met Williams at the French Open a month ago. In this second-round match, the French teenager stretched that to five, playing two sets which were way more competitive than the scoreline suggested. But of course there was never the faintest doubt that the 16-time Grand Slam champion would stretch her current winning streak to 33 matches, and she took the 599th victory of her career 6-3, 6-2 in 67 minutes.
“I live and die for every match, it gives me such a thrill to win here,” said Serena. “After everything yesterday I just wanted to stay on my toes and be focused. I really was shocked that Roger Federer was not able to win. Stakhovsky played excellent. It was just weird. Seeing all the falls and slips yesterday, I went in with a mind frame of be careful and be ready.
"But I could play on any court – they all seem the same to me. [Garcia] is a really good player, incredibly promising. She does everything well. Her serve is amazing.”
Many are tipping Garcia for greatness, although the bare facts of her career to date give scant clues why. She is currently ranked 100 in the world – long gone are the days when Serena and Maria Sharapova were winning Slam titles at 17. The French No.5 made an extraordinary Grand Slam debut two years ago at Roland Garros where she led Sharapova 6-3, 4-1 on home territory before the Russian’s experience told. But it prompted Andy Murray to tweet: “The girl Sharapova is playing is going to be No.1 in the world one day... what a player.”
Two years on, she did not get through qualifying at the Birmingham warm-up tournament this month, but achieved her career best win in the first round here by beating the former world No.15, now No.47, Jie Zheng in straight sets.
Against Williams she opened by holding to love, and showed throughout the match the potential in her serve and forehand. But Williams has never been fitter, and her entire mental approach to the game has been rejuvenated since she hooked up with coach Patrick Mouratoglou after her humiliating first-round exit at Roland Garros 13 months ago.
The set hinged on a run of eight straight points by Williams to take her from 2-2 to 4-2. Watched on No.1 Court by Amelie Mauresmo (mindful of her duties in charge of France’s Fed Cup team), Garcia exhibited her curious habit on serve of gazing skywards before every ball toss, giving her the look of one permanently in prayer. No wonder, playing Williams.
In that first set, 68 per cent of her serves were unreturned. Still, she needed four set points to wrest the prize from Garcia, and was so frustrated when the third went by that she let out a yelp of frustration with her arms outstretched and her feet almost en pointe like a ballerina. But when Garcia netted the fourth set point, Williams contented herself with a fist clench.
Garcia stuck with it, and early in the second played a forehand which had Serena commenting audibly “good shot”. But the power of Williams was, as for so many players, simply too much to withstand. She served nine aces and not one double fault, winning 86 per cent of her first serves and delivering 30 clean winners – killer stats.
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