What the world saw on Tuesday inside Centre Court Wimbledon wasn’t new. It has been happening since this 21st century and third millennium after the birth of Jesus began. The impressive part is that as she approaches her 38th birthday, Serena Williams — despite the demands of motherhood and a ridiculously unlucky sequence of health problems — keeps doing what she knows how to do so well.
She still has the knack. If anyone feared she had irretrievably lost it, she offered a refutation against Alison Riske in the women’s quarterfinals.
First, let’s appreciate how tough an opponent Riske was for Serena. This was their first meeting, which lent mystery to the moment and gave Riske the advantage of unpredictability. Everyone knows grass is Riske’s best surface, so her advantages were enhanced by the fact that Serena had not encountered her before on lawns.
That point aside, Riske was also in a “competitive zone” — not a zone in the sense of “every shot she hits turns to gold and hits the baseline,” but in the sense of inhabiting the ideal competitive mindset.
Athletes don’t always wake up and trust themselves completely. Some days, some tournaments, some matches are filled with doubts or overthinking, or other mental gremlins which inhibit consistency and natural, free-flowing play under pressure. Once in a while, however, an athlete will arrive at a tournament, and everything that week — or at a major tournament, a fortnight — will fall into place.
The athlete won’t PLAY perfectly — she won’t make every shot or get on a roll — but in every adverse situation, the athlete will RESPOND perfectly. She won’t get rattled. She won’t dwell on the previous point she should have won, but didn’t. Break points are handled with composure and poise. The raw execution of shots isn’t perfect, but the demonstration of coping skills becomes unshakably airtight.
This was Riske at Wimbledon in 2019, much as Jelena Ostapenko played imperfect tennis but always managed to regroup after losing a set at Roland Garros in 2017, en route to the title. Ostapenko missed plenty of shots and went through many rough patches of play, but she always regrouped at that tournament. Her “zone” wasn’t primarily about shotmaking, but competition. Nothing fazed her.
So it was for Riske at this tournament. She won four 3-setters to make this quarterfinal against Serena. She won two of them after being down three games in the final set. She took out World No. 1 Ashleigh Barty after losing the first set. She won her second-round match after losing a 5-2 third-set lead.
She was tough as nails, and when she lost the first set against Serena, only to win the second set and take a break lead early in the third, she showed everyone that her competitive zone had not been shaken in the least.
Serena was going to have to climb past Riske and tough it out, on a day when she didn’t have her best fastball.
Doing this is nothing new for Serena, but this is precisely what makes her career so extraordinary and luminous: Having not just the hunger, but the patience and the problem-solving capacity… and APPLYING those tennis virtues one more time.
This is where a discussion of the current WTA Tour enters the picture.
I have noted on many occasions that women’s tennis is a place in 2019 where players don’t regularly return to semifinals or (more broadly) the latter stages of big tournaments. Many players get there, but few return there with consistency. In the last 11 major tournaments (since the start of 2017), 25 different WTA players have taken the 44 semifinal berths at those tournaments. Serena and Simona Halep are the only players who have made FOUR semifinals in that span. None have made more.
Before her maternity leave in early 2017, following her Australian Open championship, Serena WAS the one player on tour who could be relied upon to make the semifinals of nearly every major tournament. Angelique Kerber produced a huge 2016 season, but she had not yet proved she could be an end-stage player every year (and indeed, she has not become such a player).
Serena was the brick wall — I say that affectionately.
She was the player who stopped the title runs of players seeking first majors, something she has done so many times over the years, adding to her legend.
She stopped Aga Radwanska at the 2016 Australian Open in the semifinals, much as she did in the 2012 Wimbledon final. She stopped Lucie Safarova in the 2015 Roland Garros final. She stopped Kiki Bertens in the 2016 Roland Garros semifinals. She stopped Elena Dementieva in the 2009 Wimbledon semifinals, in one of the best matches played this century.
So many players who were on a roll, playing the tennis of their lifetimes, would have won a major title under other circumstances against other opponents… but not Serena.
She was the stopper.
She would come back from a break deficit in the third set.
She would rely not just on her power, but her defense… and her change of pace… and her problem-solving… and her use of angles… and so many other resources to remind opponents that she was more than just a bazooka serve and a cannonball backhand return.
This is what gets lost about Serena: Her serve is the best in the history of women’s tennis… and yet she has so many other pathways to the finish line if she isn’t winning easy points. She showed as much against Riske late in the third set, after Riske — down 3-1, 40-15 on Serena’s serve — leveled at 3-all.
Serena used a soft, crosscourt angled forehand near the service line to stretch the court and get Riske out of the quick and rhythmic hitting she uses to get opponents off balance.
Serena used defensive lobs or deep topspin shots to reset points or, at the end of the first set, create forced errors.
We just saw Ash Barty win Roland Garros by being able to hit every kind of shot. Serena’s very deep toolbox was similarly able to pry open points in ways her peers would not have managed to do.
She came back from a break down in the third AGAIN.
She cooled off an opponent in a groove AGAIN.
She has won so many times, and denied an opponent looking for that first taste of major-tournament glory AGAIN.
The remarkable fact is not that Serena Williams did what she has done for roughly two decades; it is that while three-time major champion Angelique Kerber stumbles against Lauren Davis, and I am inclined to say “Oh, no big deal — she has proven herself with those three majors” (which she HAS), Serena is out here with 23 majors and still doesn’t allow these kinds of matches to slip away.
Tennis is so much a matter of repetition, of developing muscle memory no matter what the score is.
Can you play a 4-3, 30-40 point in the third set with the same relaxation and clarity you display at 1-0, 40-15 in the first set? Can you play well in the midst of struggles, not just when everything is falling exactly into place? Can you play well when your opponent has demonstrated her toughness, not just when you face an opponent who displays obvious signs of nerves or frailty?
Such is the full test of tennis — absorbing every possible negative (or if not negative, inconvenient) circumstance and STILL delivering the goods?
That’s Serena Williams — one cannot get as far as she has with merely power and a serve. She — like her tennis itself — is so much more than that.