Wimbledon: Serena Williams survives scare against Heather Watson
Dramatic evening sees home favourite almost knock out top seed on Centre Court
Serena Williams was pushed to the limit by Heather Watson on Centre Court at Wimbledon. Photograph: Jonathan Brady/PA Wire.
The best tennis of Heather Watson’s life wasn’t good enough on a dramatic night on Centre Court. Wimbledon has always had the habit of wringing emotion and passion from what are perceived as wildly one-sided games that are then turned on their heads.
As a raucous, energised crowd willed her on for over two and a quarter hours, Watson almost bridged the chasm between her world ranking of 59 and Serena Williams’s number-one status. In the end, Watson had the knife embedded in Williams but could not apply the final twist required to silence the 20-time grand slam champion.
But if Williams has imparted anything about herself over the years it’s that five Wimbledon titles do not come so easy, nor are they given away lightly.
She may look at the replay of the 6-2, 4-6, 7-5 win and blanch at the number of balls she hit long and wide but also take comfort for the street fighting instincts that pulled her though when her game couldn’t.
She will meet her sister Venus in the next round. Sisterly love? Within seconds of coming off court and still dripping with perspiration, she tipped her older sibling. My big sister, she said, is the player in form.
“That was probably the toughest match I’ve played,” said Williams afterwards. “She should have won the match. She was up two breaks.”
So she was in the third set. The 23-year-old took a 3-0 lead and served for the match at 5-4 as Williams struggled to build consistency.
Williams, however, weathered the moment as the crowd rose to spur on Watson, both players tightening in the long shadows.
The two enjoyed periods of domination, Watson through a string of six games in a row at the end of the second and beginning of the third sets, and Williams in the third set when she recovered from 3-0 down to lead 4-3.
Throughout, the crowd cheered and jeered and in the charged closing stages the stadium bristled with energy. Williams, at one point, looked longingly at the umpire Kader Nouni as the fans yelled during rallies and often called shots out.
There was little he could do. The match tumbled and turned, fell to Williams 6-2 then back to Watson 6-4, before it rocked back to Williams. At 5-5 in the third set Williams hit three aces and an unreturnable serve to lead 6-5.
“She seemed to hit the points when she needed them,” said Watson afterwards.
The English woman served to stay in the championship – but what resources her opponent had to draw on, her reputation as maybe the best player that ever lived and her determination to win all four grand slams in this calendar year.
Watson continued to keep the ball in play but was forced to save two match points as a nervous Williams yanked two forehands. The third offering the American took, her ball hitting the baseline for the winner.
“I’ve taken it in. I was two points away from winning that match, so I’m pretty disappointed,” said Watson. “The atmosphere was amazing. It helped me and pushed me. I wish I could have closed it out.
“She had a lot of free points on her serve and when it was important she was able to produce very good tennis. I had opportunities in the third set but she was able to hold on and that’s why she is the best in the world.”
But despite almost felling Goliath, there was the regret of missed opportunity.
“No, I couldn’t call losing the greatest day of my career,” said Watson.
Williams knew she was in a fire fight. She respected the pluck and poise of Watson but she’s come out the other side so often in her career that she recognises such nights as part of her rites of passage.
No one can achieve what she has without the bruising and the scars of years of putting away players like Watson.
“I honestly didn’t think I would win. I thought I was going to lose, just lose doing the right thing,” she said.
“I felt she was playing very well and I wasn’t able to keep up. Sometimes you just don’t have your day and I thought maybe this wasn’t my day. She played unbelievable, went out there with the mindset of winning this match.”