The world number one played one of her worst opening sets in living memory against Eugenie Bouchard on Tuesday. Spraying routine balls wide, long and into the net, she admitted afterwards that it had been a “crazy” display. Serena in 2012-2013 has been a remarkably consistent competitor, but in her second round match in Cincinnati she reminded us of the erratic, error-prone days of the mid-2000s when, unfit and unmotivated, she would lose to far lesser talents.
Crucially, however, the reigning US Open champion regrouped after dropping the first set 6-4. She took deep breaths and began hitting with greater discipline; Bouchard, for all her promise, was unable to respond. Serena won the final two sets 6-2, 6-2, and although she was still way short of her best form, she proved yet again that she is one of the most mentally tough players in the sport.
Mona Barthel will have to be at her very best if she is to have any chance of denting the American’s armour in the last 16. Currently ranked 33rd in the WTA standings, Barthel climbed as high as 23rd back in March, after reaching the latter stages in Auckland and Hobart and winning the Premier title in Paris. Her mild slump since then has been disappointing, but there are signs that she is once again ready to challenge for a place in the top 20. She pushed Sloane Stephens to three sets in Toronto last week, and beat both Lucie Safarova and 16th seed Maria Kirilenko to make the third round in Cincinnati.
We know how imposing Serena can be. The best server in the women’s game, she is also a brilliant defender with underrated finesse and courtcraft. Even on an off-day, that’s a combination that proves too much for the majority of players on tour. So what can Barthel to do about it? The 23-year-old also likes to play aggressively, and when she’s on form she can hit winners from every corer of the court. She moves well too, and isn’t afraid to come in to the net.
If Serena is still struggling to adjust to the conditions in Ohio and Barthel isn’t too unnerved in her first meeting with the 16-time Grand Slam champion, this match has all the makings of an entertaining, evenly contested two-setter. But if Serena raises her level even a few notches from the previous round, it could turn into a one-sided masterclass.