FIVE times a singles champion here, Venus Williams had already enjoyed something of an Indian summer by getting through to the third round for the first time in three years.
For a time yesterday against Petra Kvitova, it looked like the enjoyment would continue, as the 34-year-old American took the first set against the Czech.
In the end, however, it was Kvitova who prevailed in the clash of the former champions, winning 5-7, 7-6, 7-5 on Centre Court. The 2011 winner, seeded sixth this year, may have got off to a shaky start, but although she was just a game away from defeat when that second set went to a tiebreak, she was always in control of it. Once the match was back on level terms, Kvitova was always going to be the favourite against the 34-year-old Williams, but she still had to fight all the way before claiming a place in the last 16 against the unseeded Chinese player Shuai Peng. “I don’t think I was the better player today all the match,” Kvitova said.
“I was very nervous before the match. If you know you are playing somebody who loves to play on the grass, that she had already five titles, it’s not easy. You have respect.”
There have been times here when Williams looked less than wholly enthusiastic about taking part, but at least this year she gave it her all – and she was proud of the commitment she showed against an opponent ten years her junior.
“She played well. I gave it my all. Sometimes it’s not enough,” she said, then refused to be drawn when asked if this was her last Wimbledon.
The first match of the day on No 1 Court saw the woman with the longest name in the tournament, Barbora Zahlavova-Strycova, take on the one with the shortest, Li Na. The long and the short of it was that the Czech player won in two tiebreak sets, making the Chinese No 2 seed the most highly ranked casualty of the tournament so far.
Li, this year’s Australian Open winner, blamed her own over-defensive play for her 7-6, 7-6 loss to her unseeded opponent, and also said that, with hindsight, it would have been better for her to take part in one of the Wimbledon warm-up tournaments. “In important moments, I didn’t hit the ball to make the point,” she said. “I was always waiting to see if the opponent can make mistakes. But today it didn’t work.
“I think I made the wrong decision – I needed to play some matches before the big one. I always play Eastbourne every year, but it’s always rain and windy and I cannot practise in that. I made a decision: I said maybe I should change a little bit.”
While Li skipped Eastbourne, Zahlavova-Strycova reached the final of the Aegon Classic in Birmingham, losing to Ana Ivanovic. “I feel great here and I felt great in Birmingham,” she said. “The key to winning was the belief in myself and to not give her any easy points. I was serving very well.”
The Czech player effectively had to win the decisive game twice, as she celebrated what she thought was the winner only to see Li make a successful challenge. Unfazed, she quickly won the game for sure, and will now come up against No 16 seed Caroline Wozniacki, who beat Croatian teenager Ana Konjuh for the loss of only three games.
“She’s a great player,” Zahlavova-Strycova said of the Dane. “It will be a challenge for me and will be my first time in the second week of a Grand Slam.”
Konjuh is highly rated, but Wozniacki’s experience was too much for her. The former world No 1 won 6-3, 6-0, and is now on the verge of reaching the quarter-finals here for the first time.
Third seed Simona Halep was in trouble for a while against the Ukrainian Lesia Tsurenko, but eventually won through 6-3, 4-6, 6-4. The Romanian’s victory completed the second-round programme, coming after two third-round ties had already been completed, and she blamed her indifferent form on the long wait she had had since completing her first match.
“I think I played bad today because I stayed two days,” she said. “It’s not easy to wait two days for a match.”
Halep will be happy, then, to be back in action this afternoon, even though she expects a difficult encounter with the fast-improving Swiss teenager Belinda Bencic. “She’s a young player; she’s a strong player,” Halep added.
“I never played against her. I hope just to feel my game, to be aggressive again, and to fight for every ball. She’s also aggressive, so our games are almost the same. She will play for sure good tennis. I expect a tough match.”
Halep, this year’s French Open runner-up, is quickly getting better herself. Before this year she had not got past the second round here, thanks in part to some unlucky draws; but now, still aged just 22, she has the making of a future champion. And presuming she wins again today, she will look forward to Monday and Tuesday, when the round of 16 and quarter-finals are played on successive afternoons.