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Saturday, June 30, 2012
The curious case of Wimbledon Week 1

By Sandra Harwitt
Special to espnW

It's been the wacky world of tennis this week at Wimbledon, where the names expected to breeze through matches have been made to bleed by pesky opponents.

Fortunately, there haven't been too many early-round casualties, but there still were some, as well as some close calls.

The upset that sent shockwaves around the grounds was the five-set, second-round loss of reigning French Open champion Rafael Nadal. An unknown Czech by the name of Lukas Rosol, ranked 100th in the world, took it as his mission to wreak havoc on the men's draw.

Rosol played a fifth set that seemed to be something from out of this world, leaving Nadal scratching his head. Not surprisingly, on Saturday, Rosol fell back to earth when 27th-seeded Philipp Kohlschreiber of Austria dominated in their third-round, straight-set encounter.

The women's draw took two early hits as well, although not nearly as stunning. Fifth-seeded Sam Stosur, the reigning U.S. Open champion, faltered in the second round. Former No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki, seeded seventh, never moved past the first.

Other superstars of the game have managed to stay afloat to the second week. But many of them came too close for comfort to being sent packing and out the back gate of the All England Club.

Serena Williams
Serena Williams was seriously stoked after narrowly beating Zheng Jie to advance to the 4th round.

In the men's draw, Roger Federer had 29th-seeded Frenchman Julien Benneteau nipping at his heels until he pulled away to take the fifth set 6-1 late into Friday evening. Federer, who has seven Wimbledon titles, came within two points of joining Nadal on the sideline.

Top-seeded Novak Djokovic lost the opening set of his third-round match against former top-10 player Radek Stepanek. Fourth-seeded Andy Murray also lost a set to Ivo Karlovic in the third round.

The ladies -- as they're referred to at Wimbledon -- have not been waltzing, either. Top-seeded Maria Sharapova, the reigning French Open champion, had about all she could handle with Tsvetana Pironkova of Bulgaria. Pironkova, a 2010 Wimbledon semifinalist, eventually surrendered in their third-round match 7-6 (3), 6-7 (3), 6-0.

And then we come to what nearly turned into a surprising Saturday.

Serena Williams, the 13-time Grand Slam champion, with four Wimbledon trophies, was pushed to the limit by Zheng Jie of China. Williams had uncharacteristically faltered in the first round at the French Open last month, and it was starting to look nightmarish in the third round at Wimbledon. Eventually, Williams prevailed 6-7 (5), 6-2, 9-7, which found her shouting and leaping in the air with glee. She understood she saved herself from a second consecutive early exit at a Grand Slam.

"I don't remember the leap, to be honest," Williams said. "But I just wanted to get through that match. The last thing I wanted to do was lose."

Williams knew that a player of Zheng's ability -- she was a semifinalist here in 2011 -- had the grass-court skill set to leave her on the outside looking in. And having watched the Nadal upset earlier in the week, Williams admitted strange things were happening here at Wimbledon.

"I'm Rafa's biggest fan," Williams said. "I was really sad. It ruined my night. I was happy for the other guy, but I'm always rooting for Rafa. I think he's a great fighter and a great champion. I love his fist pumps on court and stuff.

"I thought, 'Thank God I didn't have to play that guy, because he definitely would have me 0-0.' Some days you just play against a player that plays like that. No matter what you do, they do better."

Williams summed it all up accurately, pointing to the quality of the players in the game today. "Everyone is playing everyone tough nowadays. You can't underestimate anyone. Any opponents, you kind of have to always do what you can."

In the fourth round Monday, there's no doubt that Williams will be the favorite against the 65th-ranked Yaroslava Shvedova of Kazakhstan.

Nevertheless, Williams didn't miss the fact that Shvedova accomplished something in her 6-0, 6-4 upset of French Open finalist Sara Errani on Saturday that Williams has never achieved.

Shvedova won a golden set, winning all 24 points in the first set. American Bill Scanlon is the only other top-tier player known to have performed that feat in the Open era, when he beat Marcos Hocevar of Brazil 6-2, 6-0 at the 1983 Delray Beach tournament.

Shvedova had come close to executing a golden set in the past. She won the first 23 points in a second-round match against Amy Frazier at the 2006 Memphis tournament before losing that match in three sets.

"Hopefully I'll be able to win a point in the set," Williams said, laughing. "That will be my first goal, and then I'll go from there."

And going from there translates to winning the match any way she can and moving on to the quarterfinals. That's what all the top seeds will be hoping for -- staying alive in this tournament.