Four-time champion Venus Williams fought off a late challenge from Alisa Kleybanova to reach her ninth Wimbledon quarter-final, winning 6-3, 6-4 to set up a meeting with Tamarine Tanasugarn of Thailand.
The 18-year-old Kleybanova, who has stormed up the rankings this year, left it far too late to show what might have been. Until the latter part of the second set, this Court Two joust could hardly have been more of anti-climax.
Admittedly, the Russian was in only her third Grand Slam and her first fourth round. But she has a big-hitting game and has jumped more than 100 places in the rankings this year to 42, a figure that will improve further when the new rankings are published on Monday.
Moreover, Kleybanova lists grass as one of her two favourite surfaces and as if to prove that, she had claimed the scalp of 10th seed Daniela Hantuchova in the second round.
But against Williams she was hampered in the first set by a dreadful first serve. Her percentage of first serves in was just 35 – against Williams’ 78 per cent – and she delivered seven double faults, including two in the first game and three in the pivotal game of the set, when she was 3-4 down.
It was a pity because, these problems aside, she managed to hold her own for the first half hour, largely because Williams’ own second serve was not a happy hunting ground. And when Kleybanova did manage to get her serve in, she sent down a high number of unreturnable deliveries.
In fact, her whole service action was riveting to watch. For one thing, she could conduct a close contest with Rafael Nadal to see who could take the longest to get around to putting ball to racquet. For another, her abbreviated service action is uniquely quirky, involving her looking away from the court and back again before striking the ball, a little like a baseball pitcher.
The pivotal game in the first set came at 3-4, when Kleybanova sent down three double faults to gift Williams a break point, and then sent a forehand wide to make it 3-5. Kleybanova was massaging her neck on her service arm side, the right, but she could not loosen it sufficiently to save the set. Williams served it out at the first opportunity.
In 12 appearances at Wimbledon, Williams has never lost in the fourth round. That is not to say that she has always got this far, merely that this is not a hurdle that statistically has caused her problems.
Here, she underlined her first-set advantage in the first game of the second, leaving Kleybanova stranded at the net when the Russian attempted to demonstrate her love of grass with a spot of serve and volley.
Venus easily out-thought Kleybanova’s second serve to take the break immediately, and then seized another when the Russian dumped one of her signature power backhands in the net. Moreover, the reigning champion saved both Kleybanova’s chances to reduce the deficit at 4-1. This despite the fact that the Russian clearly thought she had been harshly judged on a line call, although replays showed the call to be correct.
Unusually in Kleybanova the Williams was facing her fourth successive opponent this Wimbledon whom she had never played before. Perhaps Kleybanova’s unfamiliarity fazed the American a little. At 5-2 in the second she let three match points go by before sending the ball long to give one break back.
Kleybanova had three chances to level it at 5-5. Had she taken any one of them, this could have been a different match. As it was, Williams required five match points to secure her passage into the quarter-finals.