US tennis has a clutch of talented youngsters treading the boards these days, headlined by the sensational Coco Gauff, but another teenager stole the limelight on Wednesday night at the US Open when 17-year old Catherine ‘Caty’ McNally stole the first set off Serena Williams and gave the 23-time Grand Slam champion a real scare.
I think she really came out and played well, she showed no fear, she had nothing to lose and she played like it, It's refreshing, and it's a different game. I don't get to play players like that too often. SErena Williams
Playing the last match on Arthur Ashe Stadium, McNally challenged the great diva with not an ounce of deference, uncaring of expectations and precociously daring to go for the lines.
She chipped and charged the net off of Williams’ serve with no fear.
“I haven’t seen anyone do that in 20 years,” Chris Evert noted, admiring her all-court grit and the kind of appealing variety that adept doubles players offer.
Serena was confused. In the first round, she had known Maria Sharapova’s game like a well-read book after 23 encounters over the years, but this kid’s game was a mystery and she was spraying forehands and struggled to keep her cool.
Later she gave this candid self-analysis: “Serena, you made so many errors, what are you doing?”
Williams won her first US Open two years before McNally was born, and she had to use all her experience to avoid crashing out to the 17-year-old.
She dropped only one point in her first 3 service games, but she was unable to reach a break point in the first half of the set, as McNally was hitting her targets with pinpoint precision.
Neither player gave an inch up through 5-5, as the youngster hung with Williams with aplomb.
In that game, it was McNally who became the first player to garner a break point after back-to-back forehand errors by the former World No 1.
Last year’s runner-up found herself staring down the barrel of a major upset against her fellow American as McNally stood up to Serena’s second serve and had the 37-year-old on the ropes when she took the first set on her first chance, firing a stunning forehand return to force an error from Williams and take an eye-opening 6-5 lead.
McNally had kept Serena off balance from the start of the match, splendidly changing the speeds and locations of her serves and blending powerful forehand drives with superbly timed backhand slices to great effect to force her opponent into an unusually high number of unforced errors in the first set.
Both had difficulty making inroads on the other’s serve, as neither player reached break point until the 11th game when McNally capitalised on her one, and only, break opportunity to grab the lead.
Serving for the set, McNally blinked, hitting a double fault and a long miscue before Serena crushed a backhand pass to reach triple break point.
McNally’s all-court game, however, helped her stave off all 3 of Williams’s chances.
Serena fended off McNally’s first set point with a huge service return, but the teenager converted her second opportunity with a stellar serve returned wide.
Pushed to the limit for the first set and a half, Serena, who is the fiercest fighter in the sport, eventually found her higher gear and withstood the brilliant effort from the 17 year-old American, dispatching the future star, 5-7 6-3 6-1, in front of the boisterous night crowd.
“I think she really came out and played well, she showed no fear, she had nothing to lose and she played like it,” said a relieved Williams. “It’s refreshing, and it’s a different game. I don’t get to play players like that too often.”
The contest was providing plenty of late night entertainment under the roof for the US Open crowd.
As the second set began, Serena had nearly double the unforced errors as she did winners and yet, as she so often does, she regained her consistency and, most importantly, her serve remained impenetrable as McNally never came close to breaking her for the rest of the match.
“I knew I could get better, I tried to let Serena come through a little bit,” Williams observed. “In the first set she was picking out my wide serve, but I have two other serves so I tried them.
“I survived tonight. I’m not too pleased with the way I played at all. Serena you made way too many errors.”
Upping her game in the second set, Serena was fighting hard to stay in the tournament and she got another look in on the McNally serve as errors from the teenager gave Williams 2 break points at 3-2.
Strong volleying by McNally saved one of those chances, but Williams whizzed a return winner past her on the second to lead 4-2.
She got through a 2-deuce game to hold for 5-2, closing that game with a winning volley of her own.
McNally then had to use all of her grit to extend the set, saving 4 set points in her subsequent service game, before once again wrapping up a service hold with exceptional forecourt skills.
Serena was undaunted by her missed chances, and crunched an ace in the next game to queue up her 5th set point where an amazing rally was ended by a Williams winner, to level the match at one set apiece.
She offered a cold stare and a confident fist pump, having previously won 160 of the 220 third sets she had played, while the rookie held a 1-1 record.
Serena collected 10 of the last 12 games of the match and then explained the strategy behind her dicey three-set victory, saying: “I was trying to let Serena come through for once.”
A much more precise Williams had more than doubled her winners from the first set to the second, 17 to 8, while cutting her unforced errors down from 15 to 11.
In the end, Serena cruised through the final set, dropping only 5 points in the decider.
The 23-time major champion claimed 16 of the first 17 points of the set as she slid to a 4-0 lead, before McNally could end the run of games by holding routinely for 4-1.
As Williams continued to race through the third, she held to love for 5-1 after McNally missed a volley long on game point.
In the next game, Williams concluded an amazing rally with an error-forcing crosscourt backhand to give herself triple match point, but the 6-time US Open champion needed only one, as she cracked a forehand service return for a clean winner.
23-time Grand Slam champion Williams will face another wily player in the third round: either No 29 seed Hsieh Su-wei of Chinese Taipei or rising Czech Karolina Muchova.
Serena is the only woman who actually has a winning record after losing the first set, and merciless against kids holding a 57-3 record against teens.
The American has a ton of pressure on her broad shoulders but at the age of 37 anything can happen.
She seems hungry, focused and on a mission, eager perhaps to make amends for last year’s debacle and probably tired of being a title shy of Margaret Court’s record of 24 Slams.
She certainly wants to win a major as a mother, plus, she told her fans: “It’s okay, I’m alive, I’ll do better. I promise.”
The former World No 1 finished the 1 hour and 54 minute match with 32 winners, including 10 aces, to 28 unforced errors.
She won an impressive 81 percent of points on her first service, and broke McNally 4 times out of 12 break points.
“I made so many errors in the first two sets,” acknowledged Williams. “It was just too many.
“You can’t win tournaments making that many errors. I knew I had to play better, and I knew I could.”
McNally is having a breakthrough summer after a singles semi-final and a doubles title alongside Coco Gauff at the Citi Open in Washington, DC, and is currently ranked at a career-high World No 121.
Against Williams, McNally scored 16 winners, including 8 aces of her own, but finished with 30 unforced errors overall.
“You don’t play players like her that have such full games,” Williams said of McNally. “I think she just overall played really well.”
“I think it’s great because I want to be able to win matches where I’m not playing my best, play players who are playing great, be able to come through,” Williams stated in her post-match press conference.
“I need to be tested, I guess.”
In her entire career, Serena has lost to only 3 teenagers at a Grand Slam – to her sister Venus at the 1998 Australian Open, Maria Sharapova at Wimbledon in 2004, and to Sloane Stephens at the 2013 Australian Open.
20 years ago this year Serena, as a 17 year-old, won her first Slam at the 1999 US Open.
For McNally, the 17 year-old from Cincinnati, it’s more than likely that her future will include her own major glory.