Without the pregnant Serena Williams, the women’s draw at Wimbledon is still up for grabs, with no outright shoe-in contenders and half the seeds already out of the running.
It was a really good match, from both of us, I think. A little up and down but I got there, trying to play good tennis. Angelique Kerber
Current World No 1 Angelique Kerber is the favourite in name, seeded one, and growing in stature, while Simona Halep is the second seed, snapping at her heels.
If the two make it through to the final, we will be assured of a great match but there is a long way to run yet.
Having claimed the Australian and US Open crowns last year, Kerber has not won a single title this season and she struggled for fluency against Kirsten Flipkens, who tried everything in her power to upset her.
Kerber has been severely tested, often by herself, but she is improving with every match despite the persistence of today’s opponent from Belgium.
The 31-year old has a lethal sliced backhand that had Kerber digging her responses out of the turf and it proved the deciding factor in establishing a 5-3 lead in the Belgian’s favour in the opening set.
The German gets going when the chips are down, though, and she managed to level at 5-all, and then broke again to pocket it 7-5.
It was a real cat-and-mouse encounter throughout, filled with delightful tennis from both, who used the angles, charged the net and produced some amazing rallies. This was women’s tennis at its best.
Kerber served for the match at 5-4 but was out-foxed, again, and broken as the No 1 Court crowd crowed for a decider, but the German got it under control, finally finding a lucky let cord and an excellent lob to eventually decide it, 7-5 7-5, after one hour and 36 minutes.
The top seed is looking ever more comfortable on the Wimbledon grass.
“It was a really good match, from both of us, I think,” she said afterwards. “A little up and down but I got there, trying to play good tennis.”
Halep has looked steady enough reaching the third round without mishap, but the Romanian has proved to be fragile in the past.
Many tipped the US Open finalist Karolina Pliskova as the ultimate winner when two-time champion Petra Kvitova was knocked out on Wednesday, but she too fell, at the second hurdle, dumped out on Thursday by Slovakia’s Magdalena Rybarikova, who beat her 3-6 7-5 6-2 on Centre Court.
The Czech third seed Pliskova came into the tournament on the back of a grass court title in Eastbourne but she had never reached the third round at the All England Club.
She also had a shot at becoming the world number one, if her rivals made early exits, but the 25-year-old looked lacklustre at times.
Rybarikova battled back from a set down to win 3-6 7-5 6-2, earning the Slovakian a last 32 clash with Ukraine’s Lesia Tsurenko.
Absent was Pliskova’s usual accuracy against experienced campaigner Rybarikova, whose never-say-die attitude was summed up by a net-side masterclass in the final game of the match that had the crowd gasping.
Rybarikova, 28, was outside 450 in the world in February following injury and hit 33 winners as she beat the bookmakers’ favourites for the title.
Pliskova could still be World No 1by the end of the tournament, depending on how far Kerber and Halep progress.
“For the first two seeded girls, Angie and Simona, they have also some tough draws,” Pliskova said.
“But for me, the tournament is over. So whatever happens happens. I’m not going to pray for somebody losing or winning. That’s not my thing.”
Asked what causes her Wimbledon woes, Pliskova admitted she still finds it hard to adapt to the grass courts: “You have to get used to it. It’s different, tennis here. You cannot compare to clay or hard courts.
“The jump from the ball is always different. It doesn’t go high. You have to bend your knees, which is always trouble for me.
“There are few other things which I really don’t like on grass. Probably something in the air here!
“Obviously it’s disappointing. I don’t think I played bad.
“I’m just waiting for one or two good matches here in a row.”
Ukraine’s Elina Svitolina and Caroline Wozniacki are seeded four and five respectively.
The Dane saved two match points against Timea Babos to survive in three sets, while Svitolina had her hands full with the talented young Aussie, Ashleigh Barty, winning in two tight sets, and then dispatching Italy’s Francesca Schiavone with the loss of just 3 games to reach the third round.
Playing late on Thursday evening on Court 2, Wozniacki beat former Wimbledon semi-finalist Tsvetana Pironkova to reach the third round on Thursday.
The fifth seed rattled off four successive games to take the first set and then grabbed a decisive break in the tenth game of the second set as she claimed a 6-3 6-4 victory.
Sixth-seeded Johanna Konta is also in the third round, hoping for an easier time against Maria Sakkari from Greece after winning a nail-biting 10-8 in the third cliff-hanger against Donna Vekic from Croatia on Wednesday.
Svetlana Kuznetsova is considered a bit of veteran, aged 32, but she is playing some of the best tennis of her life and could pose a real threat as seventh seed if she carries on the form she demonstrated on Thursday in taking out the highly competent Ekaterina Makarova from France, 6-0 7-5.
Dominika Cibulkova hails from Slovakia, is the eighth seed and sitting prettily in round three, while Agnieszka Radwanska, a former finalist here, had to recover from match points down against America’s Christina McHale, and survived.
The Pole, who has not had the best of seasons this year, found some form when it really mattered to scrap her way through, 5-7 7-6(7) 6-3, taking two hours 43 minutes in the blistering heat on No 2 Court.
“Well, it was very tough, especially it was pretty hot, humid,” Radwanska told the media.
“So I’m very happy to manage to come back from the score and turn around everything in that third set.
“So, well, just so glad I came back and win another really good match.
“To be honest, whole match was so tight. It could go either ways. Just one point, so… I think after that tiebreak, I felt a little bit more confident. I was playing I think more aggressive in the third set, as well. That was a tiny bit easier.
“But from the first point to the last point of the tiebreak, everything was just so tight. I was happy to come back in the tiebreaker.”
Seeded tenth is Venus Williams, the ultimate veteran at 37, who is playing with the shadow of a lawsuit over the wrongful death of a 78-year old passenger following a car crash in Florida in June, has made it to the third round by sheer will power.
She is one of only two players in the draw to have a Wimbledon title in her locker, the other was Kvitova, who lost to Madison Brengle in three sets on Wednesday.
Williams made the semi-finals here last year and she reached the final of the Australian Open at the start of the year so has to be a real contender.
Not mentioned in dispatches covering the top 10 seeds are such names as Garbine Muguruza, a former Wimbledon finalist and French Open winner, who is sailing serenely on the grass, and Jelena Ostapenko, the current Paris champion, both of whom have the games to win here.
As does Victoria Azarenka, the darkest horse, perhaps in the draw, who is back as a dangerous floater following maternity leave from the tour. She meets Britain’s Heather Watson.
As for the bookies, who knows? They seem to be as confused as the rest of us as to who we will be watching on Ladies Final Day in just over a weeks’ time.
They still don’t make Kerber the favourite, with that tag now going to another Brit – Johanna Konta – but the German, who faces Shelby Rogers for a place in the last-16, is beginning to roll towards the title.
What is certain is that in trying to reach that point in time, the top women will be fighting to the end.