The reigning Wimbledon champion, Serena Williams, has begun her quest to equal Steffi Grafs grand slam record in low-key style, eventually beating the Swiss qualifier Amra Sadikovic 6-2, 6-4
Afterwards Serena Williams insisted that 22 was just a number. However, the occasional nerves she displayed in the opening chapter of her attempt to equal Steffi Grafs grand slam record told a different story, despite eventually overcoming the Swiss qualifier Amra Sadikovic in straight sets.
The open-era record is becoming an obsession for Williams and those who follow her. On a bright but windy Centre Court that has played host to so many of her finest moments, this was a reminder that her biggest enemy in equalling it might be herself.
This should have been an easy loosener but as Sadikovic, ranked 148th in the world, steadfastly hung on during the second set Williams began to scream at herself as she made several unforced errors. Eventually the American made the decisive break in the 10th game of the second set, having earlier gone a break down, to secure a 6-2, 6-4 victory.
It was her 80th win at Wimbledon and it is clear that Williams will have the crowd on her side as she aims to make history.
Where once Williams would have swatted Sadikovic aside, she seemed to struggle a little as the wind whipped around Centre Court and her opponent began to enjoy herself. I never underestimate anyone. I dont think it was tougher than I thought. It was definitely tough, Williams said of the challenge posed by Sadikovic.
Williams the reigning champion, top seed at Wimbledon for the seventh time in all and the fourth year in a row has earned more than $77m in prize money over a career that has yielded 21 grand slam titles.
Sadikovic, playing in the main draw at Wimbledon for the first time after previously retiring from the game at the age of 25 and then coming back, had earned around a thousandth of that during her professional career.
Two years after coming back to the tour, having seen Eugenie Bouchard a player she had previously beaten reach the Wimbledon final, Sadikovic has already achieved a higher ranking than she managed in the first phase of her career.
There was the odd flash here to suggest that her goal of breaking the top 100 is achievable, not least a backhand crosscourt winner in the first set that drew loud applause from the otherwise becalmed Centre Court crowd.
More than once during that first set Williams yelled in frustration as she failed to put her chances away and Sadikovic did her best to mix up her shots, playing what her opponent described as an oldschool grass game that sought to disrupt her rhythm. Most notably, Sadikovic managed to break the Williams serve in the third match of the second set, taking a 2-1 lead as the reigning champion smacked a backhand into the net.
Ultimately, Williams predictably had too much for her rival. The world No1 broke back in the very next game, yelling in triumph as she did so.
She insisted afterwards that she had not felt any additional pressure as a result of chasing the record. I felt I was where I needed to be. I needed to be pumped for the match. I needed to be intense. I needed to show a lot and feel a lot on the court.
With Maria Sharapova on an enforced leave of absence in the wake of her twoyear ban for taking meldonium, and Serenas older sister Venus entering the twilight of her career, the 34-year-olds powerful shoulders bear as much pressure as ever in carrying the womens game.
It was not flawless from Williams. She seemed uncharacteristically hesitant on her second serve, which was slower than this time last year, and there were a total of 18 unforced errors. The six-times champion has only one tournament victory to her name, in Rome, this season and has repeatedly come up just short in her attempts to match Grafs open-era record.
However, despite having lost in the US Open semi-finals and in back-to-back finals at the Australian Open and at Roland Garros, Williams insisted on the eve of these championships that she felt less pressure than usual.
I think more or less about winning Australia, I think about winning the French Open. Didnt happen. I think about winning Wimbledon. I dont necessarily think about winning 22, she said, not altogether convincingly, after exchanging warm words with Sadikovic at the net.
Perhaps she is trying to convince herself as all the other evidence suggests the pressure is weighing heavily on a player who grades her achievements by a different yardstick to any of her contemporaries and wants to prove her preeminence beyond all measure.
After being applauded from the court by her beaming mother, Oracene Price, watching on from the Royal Box, Williams fixed the press room with a steely stare and insisted that mental fatigue would not be a factor.
Mentally Ive been further down than anyone can be. Well, maybe not anyone, but Ive been pretty low. Theres nothing thats mentally too hard for me.