There’s been something ever so slightly lacking about Serena Williams for the past few weeks. Ever since her tremendous tear through the clay court season, winning Charleston and Madrid back-to-back, was so abruptly halted in the first round of Roland Garros, one has had the sense that she’s lost the love.
Her usual post-loss bravado following her French Open exit, her first loss at the opening stage of a Grand Slam singles tournament, was as brash and dismissive as ever. She won’t ever count herself out in public. That would be so not Serena.
But there have been a few signs that perhaps it rocked her harder than she is letting on. First, she has sought out someone other than papa Richard in the coaching department, striking up a hitting-and-advice arrangement with Patrick Mouratoglou, the oh-so-charming Frenchman whose Academy sits in the outskirts of Paris.
Secondly, she’s been decidedly piano this Championships. Hiding away at the bottom of Aorangi Park, as is her custom, the sixth seed may have dropped just 11 games in her opening two matches, but it hasn’t exactly been all bells and whistles.
"I think that's with any loss, you have to really kind of get that feeling back and regain that," Serena said. "It's not easy, especially when you're doing so well, to lose and then to try to come back. It's all mental."
So there was some trepidation as she stepped onto Centre Court on Saturday afternoon to face Zheng Jie, the pocket rocket Chinese who would have no compunction in brushing Serena off her shoulder if given the opportunity.
The stage was set on a very gusty and blustery Centre Court, Serena’s hair blowing up over her head and her skirt around her waist as she held serve to love to get her wheels motoring. But if the four-time Champion managed to win 100 per cent of points on her second serve, Zheng was perfectly capable of holding her own on her own delivery, as Serena’s returns flew left, right and centre, and generally out. Trundling into a tie-break after 44 minutes, it was Zheng who kept her consistency, taking it 7-5 as another Serena backhand ricocheted well wide.
"I just wasn't making any returns," Serena said afterwards. "I hit so many errors off the returns. I was just off. Usually I'm returning really, really well."
Perhaps it was the spark that Serena needed. Flying through the second set 6-2, reducing her unforced error count from eight to just one, the former world No.1 threw the boot back onto the Chinese’s foot for the third set.
Faced with Serena at the other end of the court, the momentum between her teeth as she rocked from side to side to receive serve, players with less punk might crumble. Many have. But Zheng has played Serena tough before, putting her through two very tight sets in the 2008 semi-final here at Wimbledon.
Squatting down on her haunches in the manner of Marion Bartoli to receive serve, the diminutive 28-year-old fought punch with punch, consistently keeping ahead of the great champion, and forcing Serena to serve to stay in the match again and again.
But Serena, when she wants it, has a habit of revving things up when she has to, and at 7-7 in the third, after almost two hours, she finally summoned her return back from its brief holiday. Thundering a big return at Zheng’s feet, she began serving for the match with a double fault, before kicking her serve up around Zheng’s head to earn two match points.
But the fearless Chinese has clearly been watching a bit of Novak Djokovic, and belted a forehand winner to save the first, before Serena fluffed her next groundstroke well long to eradicate the second.
But there’s always the trusty Serena serve to rely on. Pulling out a big serve that Zheng could only net, Serena thundered another out wide, taking the win 6-7(5), 6-2, 9-7 to reach the fourth round.
"[I was] definitely way more calm today thatn I was in my last long match and the loss," Serena said. "I thought, Serena, just relax and be calm. I felt good. I never felt like I was going to lose this match."
Screaming with relief as she fist-pumped and tuck-jumped, any suggestion that Serena doesn’t care about winning any more simply does not make sense.
“I needed a tough match like that and she’s always playing me incredibly well, so I was happy to get through,” Serena said. “We always have unbelievable matches together so I knew it would be tough.
“I want to go out with a bang, you know how I do it. I’m just fighting everything, she’s playing unbelievable on grass, so I’m just doing the best that I can.
"It definitely helps me to realise that it's not going to be easy going forward," she said. "Just stay focused. Everyone's trying to win."
Could this be the match that sets Serena’s hot pink headband on fire to the title? Perhaps.
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