Day 4 Wrap up
By Val Febbo
She coughed up two double faults in her opening service game on Thursday night. Her groundstrokes were flying long of the baseline. Her body language betrayed her frustration.
The American legend had reason to be edgy. She’d been forced to wait more than an hour beyond her expected start time of 7pm as Novak Djokovic toiled – and ultimately lost – to Denis Istomin in a stunning upset in the preceding match at Rod Laver Arena.
There was a distinct buzz around Melbourne Park as the news of this momentous upset sank in. Adding to the drama was No.3 seed Agnieszka Radwanska getting belted off court by Mirjana Lucic-Baroni at the adjacent Margaret Court Arena.
Serena was determined to avoid the upset bug. And she did, coming out on top over Lucie Safarova in what was a high-quality encounter featuring a combined tally of 23 aces and 59 winners against 39 errors. But the 6-3 6-4 result didn’t come without a fight.
Serena’s meeting with Safarova came just two days after facing former world No.7 Belinda Bencic to begin her Australian Open 2017 campaign. Safarova, who like Bencic is a former top-10 player, is far better than her current ranking of 61st suggests.
Her last meeting with Williams came in the 2015 French Open final. So this was, in pure and simple terms, a big match.
“Honestly, it's not ideal. But at the end of the day, when I play players like Bencic and Safarova, they force me to play better. It forces my game from the very first day to be at a high level,” Williams said.
“So I think it's actually good. I needed something to start really fast. I'm not going to complain about it.”
Played before an expectant, atmospheric crowd at Rod Laver Arena, Williams eventually settled after her scratchy start. While she still had to contend with a supremely talented opponent, Safarova’s level is not as it was 18 months ago in Paris. A bacterial infection wreaked havoc with her health and career in late 2015, forcing her to skip last year’s visit to Melbourne Park.
She has not been the same since. Her groundstrokes seem to have lost a little of their overall sting, and whenever she did crank them up against Serena, she wasn’t able to maintain the consistency of her heyday.
Her serve, too, appears slightly devoid of its former potency. And when she rolled in an anaemic second delivery in the eighth game, Serena crushed a backhand return down the line to draw an error. It meant a break and a 5-3 lead for Williams.
Despite her advanced age – in tennis-playing years at least – of 35, Serena has lost little of her power or force. She played a jaw-dropping one-two punch combination of a first serve-drive volley winner to reach set point, and converted it with an ace out wide.
The second set featured glimpses of the Safarova who rose to world No.5 in September 2015. She and Serena went game for game, until the Czech arrived at break point in the sixth game after clouting an off-forehand return winner.
Serena saved it with an ace, and went on to hold for 3-3. With the match poised at a critical juncture, Serena released the tension by upping her aggression and becoming more vocal with her grunting. It worked – she broke Safarova for a 4-3 lead and maintained that advantage for the remainder of the match.
Her vociferous celebration when she clinched victory – after arguably the rally of the match – showed in equal parts joy and relief.
“She's not someone you see in a second-round match. I know that (French Open) final was a tough three-set match. She never gives up. Like she's just always fighting to come back,” Williams said.
“So I knew that I wanted to jump out in the lead. I knew that I wanted to just be Serena. That's what I'm good at doing, is being Serena. That's what I wanted to do.”
She’d dodged a bullet, and restored some order to a chaotic Thursday at Melbourne Park.
Nicole Gibbs is next.