MELBOURNE—Viewed from a distance, Serena Williams’ second- round win over Tamara Zidansek appeared routine. The score, an apparently dominant 6-2, 6-3. The length, a brisk 78 minutes. Along the way, Williams struck 25 winners and fought off all four break points she faced.
But as “Peanuts” protagonist Charlie Brown once said, “Tell your statistics to shut up.” If it never appeared likely that Williams would lose, there also were long patches when Zidansek asked just enough questions to turn a routine excursion into a potential nightmare.
Surprisingly, this mushroomed into a match of simmering tension. Williams sought to fight through those struggles, frequently issuing loud cries of “Come on!” as a way to pump herself up and shake off an opponent who’d started so docile but proved deceptively resourceful. “It's definitely pretty deep,” Williams said of the internal dialogue she has during these tough moments. “It has to be motivating but also realistic. Sometimes you just miss some shots, you don't know why. Just trying to find an answer.”
The first set went as anticipated. Breaking Zidansek in the first game of the match, Williams sprinted to a 5-1 lead and closed it out in 31 minutes, aided by 13 winners.
Let it be noted that Zidansek was born in Postojna, a Slovenian town known for its caves. Perhaps this explained her subsequent ability to escape deep holes.
At one-all in the second, Zidansek went down love-40. Surely, now, a Serena steamroll. But no. A drop shot and volley winner were followed by an errant Williams forehand and, sublimely, a sweetly laced backhand down-the-line. Fighting off another break point, cajoling Williams into two more missed forehands to at last hold, Zidansek summoned memories of another player adept at absorption, redirection and annoyance, Agnieszka Radwanska. Said Zidansek, “I got into the game and then it kind of played out for me.”
Williams steamed—fitting on this sultry night when the roof was closed amid light rain—held at 30, and once again reached love-40 on Zidansek. And once again, Zidansek rebounded. Most impressive was a deftly carved backhand slice at 15-40, right from the playbook of one of Zidansek’s tennis idols, Justine Henin.
Said Williams, “I just started making way too many errors. I mean, more errors than I have been making in my good matches in the past. Yeah, I just wasn't doing the right technique, catching the ball not in my strike zone. It was just all off so I had to adjust.”
Soon enough, with Williams serving at 2-3, Zidansek held three ads. An ace, an unreturnable serve and a backhand winner helped Williams in time take the game. “She started pressing more,” said Zidansek. “With those first shots, she was always aggressive.” Finally, at 3-3, on her eighth break point of the set, Williams broke Zidansek. From 4-3, Williams won eight of the next eleven points.
“Okay, not every match is going to be perfect, how to work through that [is something] I hadn't done since September,” said Williams.
Her press conference over, Williams went into the night. But at least she’d avoided stumbling into a cave.