Wimbledon: Serena Williams applies sticky tape to aura of invincibility
Venus Williams through to third round but was also made to struggle for victory
Serena Williams gestures during her match against USA’s Christina McHale Photograph: Stefan Wermuth/Reuters
When Serena Williams smashed her racquet six times into the grass by the side of the umpire’s chair on Centre Court, it marked the point when she knew she had been part of a long rain-washed day and that it was about to get longer.
Williams, on the cusp of equalling Steffi Graf’s record of 22 grand slams, had just dropped the first set to fellow American Christina McHale, 64 places below the number one in the world rankings.
On another court without a roof, Serena’s sister Venus waited around for the rain to stop and the grass to dry out and contemplate how best to prepare for one serve that might give her the match.
Hers was a contest between the oldest and youngest players remaining in the draw.
Her duel with 19-year-old Daria Kasatkina had reached the point where the 36-year-old, three times Wimbledon champion, had just one good return of serve to break Kasatkina and win the second- round meeting.
As she hunkered down to receive the serve, large drops of rain began to drop, then spill, then pour. The two players dashed for cover, Venus with a look of total disbelief and disgust at the timing.
Serena’s mini chair tantrum appeared to serve its purpose and she shot ahead to 5-1 in a lightning raid for the second set against McHale. The first serves were landing, the ground stokes were reeled inside the lines.
Serena was also nailing those down-on-one-knee backhand cross-court dipping rippers that only she can perform. But in recent months Serena has been vulnerable, having lost in the previous two grand slam finals.
Just like Federer, Tiger Woods or any other dominant player, her aura has been fractured and maybe that urged McHale to believe in herself. With that, the younger player earned an early break for 2-0 in the third set. Williams, realising how important an immediate rescue was, hauled it back to 2-2.
But the unforced errors from her ground strokes began to hurt Williams as she handed over points again and with McHale’s easy movement around court and ability to keep the ball alive, the outcome remained uncertain.
Such was the quality of McHale’s hitting or the frustration with her own, it was Williams forcing the drop shots. But McHale maybe remembered where she was or who she was playing and dropped her serve for 4-5, allowing Williams to serve for the match.
It was then she showed a glimpse of what makes a 21-times major winner. Williams went 15 love and in a blizzard of power hit three successive aces in a crushing end to the match 6-7, 6-2, 6-4.
It was a hugely impressive showing from McHale. She is another player on the comeback trail and had reached a ranking of 24 four years ago before contracting mononucleosis. By the summer of 2013 she had fallen out of the top 100. She’s back.
“She played great. She always plays great against me. It was what it was,” said Serena. “I know mentally no one can break me. I knew I was going to have to put my mind in it when I went down a break in the third and that’s what I did.”
And sister Venus? She netted the delayed serve for 40-40 and Kasatkina won game for 7-7 in the third set. Three games later the American earned two break points, with her Russian opponent finally netting a forehand for 7-5, 4-6, 10-8.