At the time of 2012 Wimbledon, Serena Williams had 13 major titles. Williams had seemingly done it all, taking home the singles title at the Australian Open 5 times, French Open once, Wimbledon 4 times, and US Open on 3 occasions. In doubles, Williams had four Australian Open victories, two at the French Open, four at Wimbledon, and two at the US Open. This was a total of 12 major doubles wins, in addition to the 13 singles victories.
In other words, Williams had dominated tennis from the late 1990’s until the early 2010’s.
Yet, when 2012 Wimbledon rolled around, Williams’ future in tennis was full of uncertainty. Steffi Graf’s 22 major title record seemed further and further away. Williams’ ability to match Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert at 18 grand slams was even fading. Williams’ career was seemingly on its downward stretch and even a single major more was slipping out of her grasps.
The trajectory of Williams’ career almost certainly turned with her 6-7(5), 6-2, 9-7 victory over the always-tough Zheng Jie.
An extraordinarily accomplished, yet floundering career, based on Williams’ high standards she set for herself, was reignited.
Williams’ Lead-up to the Match
As has been widely publicized, Serena Williams was out of tennis starting in mid-2010, following a Wimbledon title, with a foot gash. Then, in early 2011, there was the very scary pulmonary embolism for Williams, leading to another surgery, this time a lung surgery. The near death experience for Williams was, obviously, devastating and a time of real reflection.
Williams came out of the incident with a new perspective on life and was ready to take on the tennis world once more in July of that year, with a warmup tournament in Eastbourne and Wimbledon soon to follow.
Williams had been out for three majors.
Yet, her return to tennis was not nearly as grand as the title that had preceded it. In Wimbledon that year, Williams fell in the round of 16 to Marion Bartoli. The 2011 US Open saw Williams crack under the pressure of the moment and fall to Samantha Stosur in the final.
Of course, making a grand slam final is an incredible accomplishment for 99% of the tour, so this is all relative. But, Williams was accustomed winning majors, not just making finals.
The first two majors of 2012 saw Williams’ grand slam results start to spiral a bit more. In the round of 16 of the Australian Open, Ekaterina Makarova comfortably took down Serena Williams in straight sets.
The French Open of the 2012 season is widely known as one of the worst losses in Serena Williams’ career. Williams, the No. 5 seed, took on the unseeded Frenchwoman Virginie Razzano in the first round. Williams lost the match, 4-6, 7-6(5), 6-3. It was Williams’ first ever loss in a grand slam first round.
To this day, Williams still hasn’t fell in a grand slam first round again.
Williams came to the 2012 Wimbledon Championships at a crossroads. Could she still win majors and make a run for Graf’s record? Would she retire soon?
The arc of her career could have been a lot different had the result of that third set against Zheng changed.
Wimbledon 2012 Up to this Point
Serena Williams was the No. 6 seed coming into the tournament. Zheng Jie was the No. 25 seed. As mentioned previously, Williams had won Wimbledon singles 4 times coming into Wimbledon 2012 and doubles at the Championships four times.
Yet, Zheng wasn’t a total outsider at Wimbledon. Zheng had won Wimbledon doubles in 2006 and made the singles semifinals in 2008. She lost in straight sets to Williams.
Serena had eased her way through the 2012 draw so far, losing 11 games combined in the two matches. As for Zheng, she had a scare in the first round, losing the first set to Stephanie Dubois. But, Zheng hadn’t lost a set since.
Serena Williams vs Zheng Jie was set.
Serena Williams vs Zheng Jie
Serena Williams led the head to head 6-0 at the time of the match and this would be the last time they faced off during their career.
Interestingly enough, two of those four matches were at Wimbledon. The 2008 semifinals and the 2004 Wimbledon first round. Both of those matchups were straightforward wins for Williams.
In fact, the first three matches in the head to head all were straight sets wins for Williams. Yet, both of the most recent matchups, 2009 Miami and 2011 Toronto, were three-set wins.
So, Zheng was gaining ground on Williams. But, would she continue to succeed at Wimbledon, where she couldn’t get a set during the first two matchups with Williams?
Time would tell.
The match would end up being the tightest of them all.
Williams served first and there was no break of serve in the first set. Williams was serving well, but Zheng was also doing a very good job of absorbing Williams’ power and using Williams’ pace to her advantage.
In the tiebreak, Zheng went up 3-0*, but eventually Williams was able to tie it 5-5*. Zheng showed extremely good mental composure to win the set 7-6(5).
In the second set, Williams was down 0-1, *0-30. She was hanging in the singles draw by a thread. However, Williams managed to get herself out of trouble with powerful play and then broke at *2-2 and then again at 4-2*.
Williams won the second set 6-2.
Zheng had the advantage of serving first in the third set. The tension in the air was very apparent. A crucial moment in the match was Williams holding from 1-2 *0-40 down.
There would be no breaks of serve in the match until *7-7, with Zheng having three chances to break Serena for the win at *4-5, *5-6, and *6-7. At *7-7, Zheng would be broken to 40 and Williams served the match out to 40, as well.
In one of the most intense matches in recent memory, Serena Williams won 6-7(5), 6-2, 9-7.
As reported by ESPN.com news services, Serena stated after the match, “The last thing I wanted to do was lose” and also, “I felt good. I never felt like I was going to lose this match.”
That sounds like the words of an all-time great.
Williams, after surviving a 7-5 in the third win over Yaroslava Shvedova, would go on to win the 2012 Wimbledon title over Agnieszka Radwanska. Williams also won the 2012 Wimbledon doubles title. This would start a dominant stretch where she won Olympic Gold and then the 2012 US Open title.
In total, including 2012 Wimbledon, Serena Williams would win two more doubles majors and 10 more singles grand slams.
Williams would pass Steffi Graf for most singles majors of all time at the 2017 Australian Open. Yes, Margaret Court’s lack of acknowledgement is intentional. No, Court doesn’t hold the record.
Zheng Jie, who had 4 WTA titles at the time of the match, would make one more WTA final. She lost to CoCo Vandeweghe in the final of s’Hertogenbosch in 2014.
Zheng Jie retired from the sport in 2015. At least before COVID-19, she was helping out with youth tennis in China.
Serena Williams has not yet retired from the sport. She’s still fighting for more majors and made two grand slam finals last season, at Wimbledon and the US Open. However, whether or not she can get another grand slam remains up in the air.
What’s not up in the air is the importance of that Wimbledon third round match. Another loss in the first week of a major could have put her in a very tough space mentally and changed the trajectory of her career.
However, the mental fortitude Williams showed in that match, fighting back from a set down and serving second in the third set, was commendable. Her champion qualities were on full-display and she maneuvered past what could have been a devastating result.
The third round between Serena Williams and Zheng Jie was a career-defining match for Williams.