May 28, 2016
Serena Williams found a way, as she usually does. But it took five match points and an awful lot of wasted break points earlier in the contest before she finally got it right.
A marvellous tie-break, during which Kristina Mladenovic had a set point opportunity, ended 12-10 in Serena’s favour and she screeched with relief.
It was an understandable release of tension from someone still expected to win more Slams, as though that is the easiest thing in the world for someone in their mid-thirties to do.
It’s tempting to look at the score line and conclude that 6-4, 7-6 represents a fairly straightforward day’s work. It was anything but.
Serena occasionally looked breakable in an even first set. But the American showed her class by striking at exactly the right time, with her adversary serving to stay in it.
The pressure proved too much for Mladenovic, recently turned 23, and Williams could have been forgiven for thinking that she had done the hardest part.
Instead, Serena was dragged into a draining second-set scrap that will give hope to her rivals for the Roland Garros crown.
Whilst her serve remained solid and perhaps even improved, it was Serena’s inability to take her chances that seemed so uncharacteristic.
She squandered no fewer than eight break points in the space of two mid-set Mladenovic service games alone.
Williams looked ready to explode with frustration at the way her powers seemed to be failing her, temporarily at least. Serena was emotional, struggling, imploring greater things of herself, her pleas often falling on deaf ears.
At one stage she had only converted one break point from a possible twelve, not a success rate she will have found acceptable.
At times she seemed to be carrying the weight of the world on her shoulders. At the age of 35 she is of course trying to hold back time, and often enough she still succeeds, to her great credit.
Kristina, in contrast, began to play with a wonderful fearlessness and more easily forgave her own mistakes, an admirable mindset and one she can call upon in the future.
Even when fate dealt Mladenovic a cruel blow and brought heavier rain just as she was serving to stay in the match at 5-6, she kept her cool, practised looking up at the falling drops as they splashed into her face, and ignored them.
Despite the unfriendly elements and mounting pressure, Kristina produced one of her most rousing service games and held Serena off with a steely defiance.
By now the rain had become too forceful to be ignored for a second longer. But as the women were belatedly granted some shelter, the tie-break hanging in the balance even before it had begun, you sensed we had witnessed something of a moral victory for Mladenovic.
And although it wasn’t to be for the underdog eventually, and Williams was equal to shoot-out when it came to the crunch, there was still a lingering feeling that Serena’s opponents for the rest of the tournament had seen enough to give them cause for some optimism.