LONDON (Reuters) - With the draw opening up in front of her, seven-times champion Serena Williams moved ominously into the last 16 at Wimbledon when she recovered from a sluggish start to beat France’s Kristina Mladenovic 7-5 7-6(1) on Friday.
She may be nearing 37 and ranked an almost laughable 181st in the world as she returns from maternity leave, but make no mistake, the American is back in the groove and has her eyes locked firmly on the title.
In her first Grand Slam back, after missing the previous four, she reached the last 16 at the French Open but pulled out with a pectoral injury before her match against Maria Sharapova.
A few weeks on and with her game beginning to click smoothly into place, sport’s most decorated mum suddenly looks like the one to beat in a women’s tournament full of upsets.
Russian qualifier Evgeniya Rodina is her next hurdle and with no seeds left in her quarter of the draw 25th-seed Williams appears to have an open door to the semi-finals.
“The draw has opened up even more than she could have imagined,” former men’s champion John McEnroe said on the BBC.
“This is where she feels most at home and it is the easiest place for her to step it up and intimidate.”
At almost the same time Serena was finishing off Mladenovic on Centre Court, sister Venus was losing over on Court One, meaning only two of the top-10 seeds remain.
Williams was measured on her chances when speaking to reporters, even if secretly she must be licking her lips.
“I’m feeling pretty good. I haven’t had any problems yet. I think a lot of the top players are losing, but they’re losing to girls that are playing outstanding,” she said.
“If anything, it shows me every moment that I can’t underestimate any of these ladies. They are just going out there swinging and playing for broke.”
Few players in the history of women’s tennis have gone for broke quite like Williams.
Mladenovic appeared to have her in trouble when she led 5-3 in the first set but it provoked a furious response as Williams upped the mph on her serve and began striking groundstrokes with menace to reel off six consecutive games.
To her credit Mladenovic, who reached the top 10 last year but has slipped back, dug in to take a compelling second set into a tiebreak. Williams was in no mood to waste energy on a piping hot day, though, and ran away with the breaker, winning the match with her 12th and 13th aces.
Her last defeat at Wimbledon came against Alize Cornet in 2014 and she has now won 17 consecutive matches on the All England Club grass, a run interrupted last year when, heavily pregnant with daughter Alexis Olympia, she missed the tournament.
After enduring so much in her career and coming through a complicated childbirth Williams has returned swinging as freely as she has ever done.
“I have absolutely nothing to prove. Everything is a bonus. Every time I step out there, I know what I’m capable of,” she said.
“Not many other people on the tour have won 23 (Grand Slams), so I’m in a unique position. I mean, Roger (Federer) is very close. He’s catching up. He’s right there. I can see him.”
Reporting by Martyn Herman; editing by Clare Fallon and Ed Osmond