Empty seats on Centre Court but Williams makes serene progress

It's all too obvious a description to attach to Serena Williams because of her name and there were times in the past when it simply wasn't right. She was a made-from-teak, dreamed-up-by-Marvel force of nature. She was a semi-mythical banshee goddess with a tennis racket which fired electrical bolts. But Serena serene? No offence, but she wasn't and she'd have said so herself.

Serena Williams saw off Bulgaria's Viktoriya Tomova to book her place in the third round. Picture: AFP/Getty
Serena Williams saw off Bulgaria's Viktoriya Tomova to book her place in the third round. Picture: AFP/Getty

But she was that yesterday. Serene about the fact it was National Bug Day, the date in the Wimbledon calendar when little beasties divebomb the courts. Serene about coming back from having her baby and discovering that 
everyone’s upped their game and prepared to fight and scrap for every point. And serene, too, about the half-empty stands.

Centre Court filled up later as Bulgaria’s Viktoriya Tomova did indeed make the super-champ battle before running out the winner by 6-1, 6-4, but at the start the atmosphere was flat. It was pointed out to Williams that there were only four people in the Royal Box and one of them was reading a newspaper but her smile was – there’s no other word for it – serene.

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Roger Federer had played before her and the crowd needed some chill-time, she said. “People need to get up and get refreshments. I mean, I know when I’m a spectator, I’m the biggest ‘refreshtator’. I’m serious! Men’s matches are longer than the women. You can’t sit there the whole time. I don’t blame the people. They need to get up and stretch their legs, get some strawberries and cream, then come back, start cheering again.”

Not surprisingly, the match began uneventfully. Although the scorching sun of the previous two days had gone the air was still sticky. The modest crowd were lethargic and so, at first, was Williams, or that’s how it looked. Appearances, though, can be deceptive.

When Tomova, pictured below, hit a winner, which wasn’t often in the early phase, these were shots which, pre-motherhood, might have prompted a thunderous charge and an amazing retrieval. Yesterday Williams was content to let them go, possibly conserving energy while being firm in the belief she’d claim the next point or four, which invariably happened.

She moved slowly or not at all. Tiny steps, a distracted air. But there was no need for her to do any more. She could win enough points with a serve with three-quarters of the usual boom. She could cause her opponent enough problems with a forehand which may have been missing some of its usual ferocity, but still found the very back of the court, still bounced infuriatingly high.

And when a shot required an extra bit of oomph Williams would emit a noise which written down – “Nngnn!” – doesn’t seem all that impressive but on the court sounded fantastic and the crowd roused themselves from their late-afternoon sluggishness and roared right back at her.

It was heard best, twice in quick succession: when an ace helped Williams to the first set and when a crashing forehand got her a break early in the second. “Go girl!” was the shout from the stands and the whoosh from these drives, while not full-powered, seemed to send the bugs scurrying for cover.

What could Tomova do? How could the granddaughter of a Bulgarian national football team goalie keep Williams out? She tried her best, and when Williams twice threatened to break her again, she was able to stem the flow for a bit. But Williams had got her groove on. Now she was running for Tomova’s drop-shots and what’s more getting them back. Now she was re-familiarising herself with parts of the court, her domain, which she hadn’t seen in a while.

Tomova’s best game came when she again managed to delay what seemed like the inevitable and prevent another break. One cross-court winner was such a zinger that Williams, from her standing position, joined in the crowd’s applause.

This encouraged Tomova to try to break Williams in the next game but she was quickly steamrollered. Slowly, but decisively. Tomova wasn’t quite finished. She managed to save a match point on her own serve but Williams prevailed – to the delight of the spectators and by then the refreshtators, too.

The match hadn’t been easy, she said – none of them are anymore. “Especially nowadays everyone is so pumped, so ready, so intense on the court. I feel like it’s a good thing. I think it brings a lot of excitement to tennis. For me it’s super exciting to see.

“Everyone is playing hard. No one is going out there and saying: ‘Oh, I have to lose because I’m playing so-and-so’. These women are going out there and they’re fighting. They’re coming out to show that they belong here. And you know I’m actually doing the same thing. I’m going out there saying: ‘I belong here as well.’”