Yesterday (Friday the 3rd of July) nearly saw the early exit from Wimbledon of Serena Williams, the overwhelming favourite to win this year’s Wimbledon women’s title. Serena is trying to win her fourth major in a row, having won the US Open in 2014, and the Australian Open and French Open already this year. Since I drew up my table of Tennis Roll of Honours back in July 2013, Serena has added four more Grand Slam titles. In September 2013 she won the US Open, and in 2014 she again won the US Open after a “dry spell” (for her). She now stands at twenty Major titles, just two behind Steffi Graf’s record (in the Open era) of 22.
Serena nearly lost yesterday to an inspired Heather Watson, who is currently the British number 1 (and, on this display, is likely to stay there, despite previous number 1 Laura Robson coming back from an 18-month injury lay-off). Most people assumed Serena would blow Watson off the court, and the first set went pretty much as expected with Serena winning it 6-2.
However, in the 2nd set, Serena started making a series of errors. Some were unforced, but many were due to Watson upping her standard of play and out-rallying Serena with powerful ground strokes which kept Serena pinned back and running around all over the court. Watson won the 2nd set 6-4, but I assumed she would be overpowered by Serena in the 3rd set.
Nothing could have been further from the truth. Watson went into a 3-0 lead, breaking Serena’s serve twice. She was serving to go up 4-0, and had she done so I think Serena would not have been able to come back. In a very long game which went to several deuces, Serena finally managed to break back to make it 3-1. She then brought in back to 3-3, and again I thought Watson would now crumble under Serena’s pressure.
Nothing of the kind. After losing three games in a row, Watson got back to playing the tennis that had troubled Serena so much and broke Serena’s serve again. At 5-4, she found herself serving for the match. Serena managed to up her game again, and broke back to make it 5-5. She then held her own serve, and broke Watson again, to finally win the match 7-5 in the last set.
I have rarely seen Serena look so worried and relieved to win a match as she did in this one. It is not so much that Watson lost her nerve, she lost because Serena has an inner belief and fight that marks a true champion apart from the also-rans. You don’t win 20 Major titles without having to dig yourself out of holes and win the important points, and Serena did this yesterday to pull off a remarkable victory after staring down the barrel of defeat.
So, Serena is still on course to win her fourth Major in a row, and if she does she will hold all four Majors at the same time. She would also, of course, still be on course to win all four Majors in the same year (with the US Open in September), and if she does this she will finally achieve a Grand Slam, one of the few accolades she has so far not achieved in her illustrious career. After fighting back from imminent defeat, I wouldn’t now put it past her.