An anthem fit for a gladiator accompanied Serena Williams’ walk onto the red clay of Court Central tonight, and the flurry that followed the sound also struck a chord. The sight of Serena swinging her right arm rhythmically warming up her service motion during the coin toss might spike stress in even some veteran opponents, but Laura Robson barely blinked.
The 19-year-old Brit broke Williams in the opening game. Then the world No. 1 tuned up her strokes and restored order, reeling off 12 of the next 15 games to roll into the third round of Rome, 6-2, 6-2, with her 20th consecutive win.
Robson’s Rome debut was impressive: She swept Venus Williams in the first round yesterday, setting the stage for her first encounter with Serena. The left-handed Robson is fun to watch because she’s a shotmaker who generates such easy power from her fluid smooth swing, and often brings her best against top players—she scored her first career Top 5 win over Agnieszka Radwanska in Madrid last week. Robson showed flashes of dazzle tonight, hitting some electric forehand winners, but ultimately ran into a superior player and a fundamental truth: You cannot maintain much hope of hurting Serena when you’re busy beating up yourself. An erratic Robson more than tripled Williams’ error output (35 to 11), tossing in eight double faults, including the final one on match point.
Serena’s skill at spreading the court was key. She sometimes hit her stinging backhand cross-court to stretch Robson, before stepping inside the baseline to take the next backhand early and drive it down the line. Williams, who faced four break points in her first two service games, blasted a sharp-angled backhand winner cross-court to hold for 2-1, and that shot seemed to loosen up the 2002 Rome champion. When Williams slammed an ace wide to complete a love hold, she surged to a 4-1 lead, prompting Robson to call for advice from adidas coaching consultant Sven Groeneveld.
“Use your big serve, you’ve got a good serve, so put the pressure on her,” said Groeneveld, who has that calming, confident tone you’d want to hear from your pilot while tossed around during turbulence. “Breathe. Settle down, attack the ball and go at her.” Robson responded with successive aces for a love hold, but Serena slammed the door, winning 12 of the last 18 points to seize the 33-minute first set.
Williams was clad in a neon orange tank top that revealed a torso so sculpted you half expected to see her standing alongside the marble statues that stand sentry near the stadium. Serena's physicality is an obvious weapon, but her mind—reading Robson’s serving patterns and realizing the teenager’s tendency to over-hit when stretched—was also a factor, as she managed the match better than her teenage foe. The top seed scouted her opponent during Robson’s win over Venus, and she didn’t try and bang the ball to give her rhythm. Williams played the angles, defended well, and brought the heat on serve when she needed it.
Williams withstood two break points to hold for a 3-2 second-set lead, then spread the court to squeeze the errors from her opponent, winning the final four games to seal a 75-minute match that did not require her to bring her best.