Defending champion Serena Williams reached the last 16 of Wimbledon after an imperious display against Annika Beck, winning 6-3, 6-0 in 51 minutes
Cracks were beginning to appear in Serena Williamss tennis, sages said. She lost grand slam finals in Australia and France this year, and was beaten in the semi-finals of the US Open last year. So Wimbledon is the only slam title she holds a year ago she was the monarch of all she surveyed, with all four majors in her cascading collection.
But if there is a new frailty to her overwhelming power game, and if she is no longer feared in quite the way she once was, then she is a master of disguise, for her destruction of Germanys Annika Beck on Sunday was a throwback to her pomp, a brutal dismissal of a solid player, who this year had reached the fourth round in Melbourne and the third in Paris.
Williams, almost 35, may be the oldest No1 in WTA history but she took only 51 minutes to steamroller Beck 6-3, 6-0.
There is a wonderful vagueness about Williams, for when she was told afterwards that this was her 300th slam win she replied: Three hundred? Thats good right? Yes, right. She is now six short of Martina Navratilovas record.
Nor could she recall her participation the last time Wimbledon had a weatherinduced middle Sunday, in 2004. I didnt play, she said immediately after her win against Beck. A little later I had the chance to remind her that she was one of stars that day 12 years ago, and that she had played Spains Magi Serna on Centre Court.
She laughed. Thats a blast from the past, she said. Gosh! What year was that? When she was told, again, that it had been 2004, she said: Did I win that year? She did not, though she has six times, going back to 2002.
One reason for her alleged vulnerability may be the fact that she is not playing a great deal of tennis these days, having ended a four-year slog of relentless action. She is again devoting much of her time to her other interests, including her charity work and her clothing line (ordinary people have clothes lines, stars have clothing lines).
With 21 grand slam singles titles, she is one short of Steffi Grafs Open era record. Chris Evert, herself the winner of 18, feels that the greatest player of the modern age is feeling the pressure. I think it has gotten to her a little bit nerve-wise no doubt about it, she said in the buildup to these championships. She wasnt able to dig herself out of the hole [in Australia and France] like she has in past years. In the last three grand slams she hasnt been able to get herself into that next gear when shes in trouble, which shes famous for.
Against Beck, though, second gear was plenty. Beck has moved strongly to 43rd in the rankings; she is one of 10 German women in the main draw this fortnight, the second largest contingent after the United States 18. She has got this far with a combination of precision, athleticism and considerable determination. These were weapons enough to get past Britains Heather Watson in the first round but, at a time when the womens game is seeing the emergence of some powerful hitters, her own lacks a certain oomph.
Against Williams the second oldest woman in the draw behind her sister Venus she looked as though she was fighting in the wrong weight division. Williams sent down one serve at 123mph and her average first serve was well over 100mph in both sets; Becks average speed in the two sets was 86 and 88mph, about the same as Williamss second serve. Nor did Becks ground strokes have the muscle to trouble her opponent.
Williams, who is making her 17th appearance in the main draw here, was tested more fully in her second round match against Christina McHale, who won the first set on a tie-break. And she will doubtless have a tougher time in her fourth-round meeting with Svetlana Kuznetsova, who had an epic two-and-a-half-hour tussle with Sloane Stephens, which earned the players a standing ovation.
To beat a player such as Williams, Beck needs a considerable degree of complicity in her opponent. And Williams, to begin with, played her part with a string of unforced errors in the opening set.
Beck even broke Williamss service in the third game although, as she was then broken twice herself, to lose the set in 31 minutes, it may have been her biggest mistake of the afternoon.
After that the Germans Centre Court debut was horribly one-sided, despite a 20-stroke rally in the third game. The second set lasted only 20 minutes.