Firsts are increasingly hard to come by for Serena Williams.
During her 52 grand slam appearances since 1998, of which 16 have ended in victory, she has done most things at least once. But this was the first time she had played, and defeated, an opponent from the grand duchy of Luxembourg.
It was a momentous occasion that Williams appeared to savour, taking an eternity by her standards – 57 minutes – to beat Mandy Minella 6-1, 6-3. This was not Williams at her most fluent and destructive. She even had her serve broken at the beginning of the second set, something that took five matches at the French Open.
Williams admitted that she was still finding her feet on the grass, particularly coming on the back of the longest clay-court season of her career. "I was a little rusty for some reason," she said. "I don't feel I played my best. I felt really upset when I lost my serve in the second set.
"It's tough out there. I played a lot of matches on clay this year, more than I've played I think ever. And I had a tough time adjusting. You have to adapt to the bounce, to the games going really fast. You have to really bend your knees, get low, stay low, be really dedicated to that."
This was a variation on what Rafael Nadal had said the previous evening, attempting to make sense of his shock defeat by Steve Darcis. Still the idea that Williams might suffer a similar fate against Minella, ranked 92 in the world, was always far beyond fanciful.
Williams entered this Wimbledon, a tournament she has already won five times, most recently 12 months ago, as the most blistering of favourites. Since the 2012 French Open her record is 75 wins, three defeats, three Grand Slam successes and an Olympic gold medal. This victory was her 32nd in succession; in the women's game this century only her sister Venus has won more on the spin, 35, and Serena will eclipse that record if she reaches the quarter-finals next week. In pure tennis terms Wimbledon is hers to lose.
Experts have identified only two possible chinks, neither of which relates to her on-court game. One, Williams gets injured, which could happen, potentially a recurrence of the ankle injury she suffered at the Australian Open earlier this year. The second hope for her rivals is that she might endure some kind of meltdown. When Williams lost in the first round of the 2012 French Open to Virginie Razzano, she wept into her towel during changeovers, apparently because of visa complications. So, as much as her movement and groundstrokes it was Williams' mental state that was scrutinised as she faced Minella.
In the film documentary Venus and Serena, Serena discussed some of her conflicting personas: on a good day there is "Summer", who is organised and thoughtful; "Psycho Serena" is the one most often found on the tennis court; but when things go wrong, there is the dreaded, terrifying "Laquanda", who has been known to threaten a line judge with having a tennis ball stuffed down her gullet.
Which would show up on the Centre Court at 1pm? Initially it was hard to say. She walked on without acknowledging the crowd, wearing a fitted white blazer with an occasional flash of orange hotpants and matching nails. There were a few unoccupied seats around the Royal Box but Williams was strictly business. "I didn't notice," she said later. "I was out there to play tennis, to get to the next round."
The first set went exactly to plan, ruthlessly closed out in 19 minutes. Williams served 16 times, won 16 points. Minella had a pleasant, net-skimming backhand but she has never made it past the third round of a major and her lack of conspicuous weaponry showed. The crowd went "Ahhhh" a lot – typically when the Luxembourger could not handle Williams's power and dumped the ball in the net – meant to convey "hopeful disappointment".
So far, so "Summer". But when Williams lost the first two games of the second set, "Psycho Serena" did briefly make an appearance, crushing cross-court forehands and devouring Minella's second serve. There was even a yelp and a fist-pump from Williams when she broke back. After that it was straightforward stuff and when they shook hands at the net "Summer" re-emerged: Williams waved and pirouetted, then graciously joined the crowd in applauding her plucky opponent.
Williams was asked if her spat with Maria Sharapova had affected her preparations for the match or indeed Wimbledon. "Really?" she said, quizzical. "No, it hasn't been a distraction. I'm just here to focus on the tennis. It's the premier tournament in the world, of the year, so that's what's most important." She has not spoken to Sharapova, then? "Oh, we're playing on opposite days, so we don't really see each other."
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