Serena Williams is in denial, through necessity as much as choice.
The world No1 can make yet more history here and with every match the focus on what she could achieve will build. Victory a week on Saturday would give her a sixth Wimbledon title, a 21st grand slam title in all, a second “Serena Slam” of four straight majors and leave her needing “only” to win the US Open this summer to become the sixth person to complete the calendar-year grand slam.
To deal with the pressure, Williams does a good line in pretending she is not sure what is going on. Not completely – of course she knows what is at stake – but on Monday, after a slightly nervy opening-round win, 6-4, 6-1 over Russia’s Margarita Gasparyan, she gave the impression that she has been hiding away from anything to do with what stands before her in the next two weeks.
Not only did she say she had not known that Gasparyan was a qualifier, until she was told by an interviewer, the 33-year-old then appeared to have no idea she will meet her sister and five-times champion, Venus, in the last 16, should the seedings pan out. Venus crushed the young American, Madison Brengle 6-0, 6-0.
Given that they are sharing a house, as always, over the fortnight, it seems unlikely, but it was classic Serena – and who are we to argue with her thought process? “I didn’t know that,” she said, to a number of raised eyebrows. “Well, she’s been really tough. Last time we played, she actually beat me. That’s not going to be an easy match. You know what, I’m going to just focus on right now. You got me?”
Williams had the grace to smile as she said it but of course she is well aware of what she can achieve. Having fought her way to the French Open title this month, she is two grand slam wins short of Steffi Graf’s total of 22, while Margaret Court’s all-time record of 24, won before and after the open era began, is also within her grasp. She knows about it but does not want to think about it too much.
“Honestly, I don’t think about it,” she said. “But every time I come into press, you guys talk about it, so naturally it’s definitely getting more on my mind than I want it to be, than what it has been. It’s definitely historic, I guess, but it’s also six matches away. It’s definitely not guaranteed. I’m just going to try to enjoy holding three right now and enjoy that moment.”
There is, of course, good reason to try to avoid over-egging the subject. In 2002, when she won the French Open, Wimbledon and US Open, she went into Australia chasing the Serena Slam and was very nervous.
“I remember I almost lost in the first round,” she said. “I remember I had a very intense final against Venus. I don’t remember much in between. Maybe I had a tough semi, I think against Kim [Clijsters]. I don’t remember mentally where I was at this moment, whether I was thinking about getting the Serena Slam. I don’t know; we’ll see.”
When she trailed the world No113 Gasparyan 3-1 in the first set here, the Serena Slam seemed a long way off as the American’s feet refused to move. Beaten early in the past two years in SW19, there were nerves, something that was clear for everyone to hear when she was warned for swearing in the sixth game. That was the game that got her back on track, though, as she broke to level and then eased through the rest to set up a match against Timea Babos of Hungary.
The former world No1, Ana Ivanovic, crushed China’s Xu Yifan 6-1, 6-1 but the No9 seed, Carla Suárez Navarro, was hammered 6-2, 6-0 by last year’s junior champion Jelena Ostapenko, of Latvia. The former grand slam champions Victoria Azarenka and Sam Stosur advanced while the French Open runner-up, Lucie Safarova, battled through to beat the American, Alison Riske, 3-6, 7-5, 6-3.
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