Serena passes tough French examination
Serena Williams has had trouble with French players at Grand Slams before and she again had to work feverishly in an epic tie-break after a rain interruption to beat Kristina Mladenovic.
Every now and again, Serena Williams runs into a Frenchwoman at a Grand Slam and slips up. Over 17 years, she’s been beaten by Sandrine Testud, Amelie Mauresmo, Marion Bartoli, Virginie Razzano and Alize Cornet in the big ones.
On Philippe-Chatrier Court, it was Kristina Mladenovic’s chance to join that elite band and, goodness, did she provide an impressive application for membership before Williams finally subdued her thrilling challenge in their hugely entertaining, rain-interrupted third-round contest.
The final scoreline of 6-4, 7-6(10) does absolutely no justice to Mladenovic’s heroic effort which saw her save nine break points in the second set and then four match points in the tie-break before Williams was able to finally progress to the last-16 in just under two and a quarter hours.
It was a thundering match which on occasion reduced the champion to howls of frustration as she wondered what on earth she had to do to end the resistance of the 23-year-old, whose succession of streaky winners and risky drop shots kept her in the fray, much to the growing excitement of the Chatrier courtiers.
Maddeningly, the contest was interrupted because of a downpour for over two-and-a-half hours when still beautifully poised before the second set tie-break - but after the pair re-emerged, the drama was heightened magnificently.
During the break, Williams had had time to work out where she had been going wrong. “I just made it a point to play my game. Up until that point, I had not been playing my game. I was playing really defensive. It's not me. So I just wanted to be Serena out there,” she said.
Sure enough, she was. The 19-minute tie-break produced thrilling fare. On her first match point at 6-5, Williams deposited the easiest of smashes long and dropped to her haunches in frustration; on her second at 7-6, she looped a potentially winning forehand wide; and on her third, she had to chase down a courageous drop shot from Mladenovic and couldn't control her forehand, edging it long.
With the crowd at fever pitch, Mladenovic then earned a set point of her own before she was again put on the back foot and went 10-9 down, only to pull off yet another escape with a dazzling forehand winner.
Finally, at the fifth attempt, Williams applied enough pressure for Mladenovic to hook her forehand into the tramlines. What a breaker. What a match!
“I think she played well. I feel like I made a tremendous amount of errors. But, you know, I feel like she kind of forced me to. She forced me to go for it, and unfortunately, I wasn't hitting great today,” said Williams.
It had been hard to envisage such drama at the start and it didn’t seem to bode too well for the lass from the suburbs of Dunkirk when Mladenovic became the latest to emerge on court in the now familiar black-and-white ensemble.
Most of the Chatrier courtiers were elsewhere having their lunch while the lioness Serena just had to look across the net to ponder tucking into zebra.
To start with, you could only fear the worst for Mladenovic as the champion reeled off the first six points with an ominous degree of comfort but then suddenly a real match began to blossom as the 23-year-old lived up to her promise to give it a go.
A lovely backhand winner arrowed diagonally into the corner beat Williams and signalled an immediate response from the Frenchwoman, who then reeled off the next six points and earned a break point.
Williams looked rattled as her young opponent produced a fearless mix of crisp, aggressive ground strokes from both wings, plus a few drop shots thrown in which proved so effective that Williams nearly slipped over when chasing one down.
The crowd were roused by some bravura points from Mladenovic like the rally in the seventh game when she subjected Williams to death by drop shot, lob and volley all in the same wonderful point.
She was in the ascendancy to such a degree that no matter how much Serena screamed at herself to raise her game, she could not intimidate Mladenovic and actually did well to survive three break points which would have allowed the No.26 seed to serve for the set.
At this business end of the set, Mladenovic, who had hitherto served so well, lost slight focus, throwing in a double fault and one heavy drop shot too many. Williams pounced, finally forcing her into a decisive forehand error on the third break point.
That, in theory, should have been the cue for Mladenovic to wilt. Instead, even as Williams cranked up the pressure, she discovered extraordinary resolve, coming back from 0-40 down in successive service games to hold on grimly and then saving a ninth break point of the set before making it 4-4.
She was on the brink, twice having to serve to save the match as the rain started to tumble down but, despite being just two points away from losing on two separate occasions, she survived to take the set into a tie-break just as the heavens really opened.
Then followed the epic breaker which the 34-year-old took to set up a last-16 meeting with Elina Svitolina, the Ukrainian 13 years her junior who has impressed Williams greatly with her swift ascent.
Justine Henin, an old rival of Williams, is now part of Svitolina’s coaching team but Serena just shrugged: “It really doesn't matter (that she’ll be in the box). It's just really about going out there and playing your best ... It’s just another match to me.”
And, very probably, just one more victim.