It was the younger Williams sister we were watching on Centre Court, yet the number 11 hung in the air.
The comeback year of Serena Williams has been unique. We have followed her to an exhibition in Abu Dhabi, to doubles with her sister in Asheville, North Carolina, to the official return at Indian Wells, then to Paris and now London. All around the world Williams went, yet her official 2018 match count remained at only 11 coming into her Wimbledon quarterfinal against Camila Giorgi on Tuesday. Giorgi, an Italian whose game rests on hitting the ball with as much pace as possible, had already upset a seeded player in her first round (No. 21 Anastasija Sevastova). Serena and Giorgi had played before, with Serena leading their head to head 3-0, but this was an unexpected matchup for a quarter that originally featured Sloane Stephens, Elina Svitolina, and Venus Williams. By reaching the quarterfinals, Giorgi assured an 11th straight year of at least one unseeded Wimbledon player making it to this round of the second week.
This Wimbledon has been a topsy-turvy affair for seeded players. None of the top 10 seeds for the women made it past the fourth round, only one past the third round. Seeding had been the topic of the moment before Wimbledon began due to The Championships’ committee decision to install Serena as the 25th seed while her current ranking is 181. Ironically, Serena entered the quarterfinals with the second lowest average rank of opponent played. Don’t think she is underestimating her opponents; on the contrary she expects them to play better than their seeding.
“Every single match I play, whether I’m coming back from a baby or surgery, it doesn’t matter,” Serena said. “These young ladies, they bring a game that I’ve never seen before. It’s interesting because I don’t even scout as much because when I watch them play, it’s a totally different game than when they play me. That’s what makes me great: I always play everyone at their greatest, so I have to be greater.”
Serena needed to be greater on Tuesday. Giorgi came out of the gate serving tremendously, as she had been all tournament. She hit 6 aces, won 77 percent of her first-serve points, and kept averaging higher service speeds than Serena throughout the match. Giorgi played one of her cleaner matches. A powerful hitter, she is also known for littering the stat sheet with double faults and unforced errors. Giorgi kept all of her worst habits in check as she kept Serena on her heels throughout the first set.
Serena was not playing poorly either. She finished the match with 24 winners, 9 unforced errors, and 7 aces herself. There was early concern regarding Serena’s serve and the injury that forced her out of Roland Garros. Late into the first set Serena was averaging only 102 mph on her first serve. Ultimately Giorgi’s level forced her to recalibrate.
“I never thought I was in danger of losing this match,” Serena said. “Even when I was down the first set, I thought, ‘Well, she’s playing great, I’m doing a lot of the right things.’ I never felt it was out of my hands.”
What Williams also holds in her hands is the opportunity to play in another Wimbledon semifinal. After the match she told the media, “I feel good about my game. I did better in this match – I had to – but it’s only my fourth tournament back. I don’t feel pressure. I don’t feel I have to win. I feel like I’m back but I still have a long way to go.”
24 may not be such a long way for Serena. She’s two matches away from conquering her old friend history once again.