Dogged Serena Williams looks on her way back to her best

Serena Williams is at full stretch on her way to victory over Kristina Mladenovic and a place in the fourth round. Picture: Glyn Kirk/AFP/GETTY
Serena Williams is at full stretch on her way to victory over Kristina Mladenovic and a place in the fourth round. Picture: Glyn Kirk/AFP/GETTY
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“Technically” Serena Williams is not a top player. She was keen to point out that this was merely a technical glitch to do with the rankings.

On paper, she is the world No 181, so not top at all. But in reality she is still Serena. At the moment, she is not yet as good as she has been in the past but she is sitting safely in the fourth round at the All England Club and she knows that round by round, she is getting better. Yesterday, she faced her sternest test yet against Kristina Mladenovic, the feisty if brittle world No 62 and came through 7-5, 7-6.

Mladenovic pushed and Mladenovic threatened but Williams upped the ante when she needed to and got the job done in one hour and 49 minutes of sheer force of will.

“Every opponent is playing their ‘A-game’ as we see in this tournament,” she said. “So many top players have lost and ‘technically’ I’m not a top player but I do have the wins of one so, yeah, I just get ready for anyone that I play.”

She was smiling as she said this but a little later, she was deadly serious as she explained just what it is that makes her so difficult to beat. Years of being the one scalp that every player wants to claim has made her tougher, stronger. When it comes right down to it, all those she has flattened over the years have only themselves to blame.

“Every single match I play, whether I’m coming back from a baby or surgery, it doesn’t matter, these young ladies, they bring a game that I’ve never seen before,” she said. “It’s interesting because I don’t even scout as much because when I watch them play, it’s a totally different game than when they play me. That’s what makes me great: I always play everyone at their greatest, so I have to be greater.

“I like it because it kind of backfires because everyone comes out and they play me so hard. Now my level is so much higher because of it, from years and years of being played like that. So it’s, like, you know what, my level, if it wasn’t high, I wouldn’t be who I am. So I had to raise my level to unknown because they’re playing me at a level that’s unknown. Yeah, so now I’m used to it.”

Now she plays a qualifier – Evgeniya Rodina, the world No 120 who ousted the No 11 Madison Keys yesterday. The Russian has never faced Williams before so has no idea what it is like to face the seven-time champion in pursuit of another piece of silverware. As for Williams, she is thinking only about herself.

Still trying to find her way back into the usual routines, most of the bits and pieces are slowly falling into place but everything requires thought. As yet, there is no automatic pilot which is hardly surprising given that she was away from the tour for 15 months on maternity leave.

“I’m trying to find that groove,” she said, sounding mildly perplexed. “When I’m in that groove, I always say certain things to myself. Haven’t played in a while, so I’m trying
to get back in that groove of what I say and what I do, how I think, how I approach the game. I’m still actually trying to find it.”

Without it, she is looking pretty impressive. When she finds it – and it can happen in an instant – she will be terrifying again. Physical fitness will come with time and matches but the understanding of what it is to be a champion never fades.

“Not many other people on the tour have won 23 [grand slams], so I’m in a unique position,” she said. “I mean, Roger [Federer] is very close. He’s catching up. He’s right there. But that’s amazing, you know. There’s only a handful of people that can say that they don’t have to do anything else in their career.”

Her sister Venus was searching for some sort of magic spark against Kiki Bertens and almost found it, too, until the world No 20 just shouldered her out of the way 6-2, 6-7, 8-6.

It never ceases to amaze that at 38, the five-time Wimbledon champion not only wants more, she still has the wherewithal to achieve it. The third set yesterday was simply stunning – Venus may not have been playing at her best but her nous, her courage and her court craft were remarkable.

Alas, her enthusiasm for the game is not matched by her willingness to communicate.

Had she thought about what she would do now? “No.” Would she be back next year? “Yeah.” Does the competitive fire still burn strongly? “Yeah.”

She may wish to expand on those themes if she does return next summer. Or maybe not. But by that time, her sister may have added to her grand slam tally substantially.