Serena Williams continues to surprise, finding reserves deep within herself to overcome the challenge presented by Alison Riske, a fellow American, at Wimbledon on Tuesday.
I just needed to just fight, Serena Williams
The former World No 1 scored her 97th victory at the All-England Club in some style, taking down the always-dangerous Riske in 3 close sets to return to the Wimbledon final 4.
As the daughter of a former secret service agent and FBI investigator, Riske is hardly a soft touch on these lawns.
For all her mental hardness and hustle, the unseeded American ran smack into arguably the most competitive tennis player of all time, a woman celebrated for her bloody-minded refusal to yield on the Centre Court grass.
When Riske went an early break up in the third set, it looked as though she had every chance of coming from a set down for a fourth time in The Championships, for what would have been her greatest win of all.
In the end, it was Williams, who by then had arranged her hair into a bun, perhaps signalling that it was time to get serious, prevailed 6-4 4-6 6-3, putting the 37-year-old just 2 more matches from equalling Margaret Court’s all-time record of 24 Grand Slam singles titles.
“I just needed to just fight,” Serena said later. “Alison, I mean, she played great throughout the whole tournament. She’s beaten so many amazing players, players that have had great years.
“She was not giving it to me. I needed to step up and take it. That’s what I had to do.”
As Williams put it, she was ‘playing hard’ against this first-time quarter-finalist.
Serena has dropped just the one set en route to the quarter-finals as she navigated the ‘group of death’, a section of the draw littered with former champions and dangerous grass court players.
The American outplayed seeded players Julia Goerges and Carla Suarez Navarro, with only Slovak youngster Kaja Juvan taking her to three sets.
With her level looking more and more dangerous as the fortnight has gone on, today Serena struck 48 winners and 18 aces to take down the ‘s-Hertogenbosch champion, 6-4,4-6 6-3 and return to the Wimbledon semi-finals.
Serena twice trailed by a break in the opening set, Riske playing like a veteran in her first Grand Slam quarter-final and first career meeting against Serena.
Riske kept the Serena serve under pressure, breaking first to grab a 2-1 lead – despite Serena hitting three aces in the same game, but Serena struck back a few games later, rushing the net and scooping back a net-cord ball to level at 3-3.
The pair traded breaks once again, with Riske surging ahead and Serena hitting back to make it 4-4.
She stayed patient and waited for her chances, firing winners off of both wings and was rewarded with a final break at 6-4 to snatch away the opening set.
Riske, who has spent almost 4 more hours on court than her opponent after contesting 4 consecutive 3-setters, proved why she is so dangerous on the grass by rallying back in the second set.
She stayed toe-to-toe with the former champion, and didn’t face a break point in the entire set as she broke Serena at 5-4 to level the score at one set apiece.
She was in trouble as Serena surged ahead in the deciding set, turning around a 0-1 break deficit and reeling off 3 games in a row to lead 3-1.
She fought back admirably, edging to a break back to level 3-3, but Serena wouldn’t be denied.
Her big serve was booming and her returns had Riske scrambling, breaking once more at 5-3 and serving it out in style to return to the Wimbledon semi-finals.
Reaching this stage has historically been a good omen for Serena: the 7-time champion has reached the semi-finals here 11 times in her career, and she’s only once failed to advance to the final, in 2000, when she fell to older sister Venus Williams in the final four.
“I haven’t had a tremendous amount of time to prepare for this,” Serena told the press later. “But, you know, like I said in the beginning of this tournament, each and every match for me has to count as, like, five or ten matches because I have not played a lot.
“This is the first time since Australia that I actually felt, like, good. It’s been a really, really long year for me already, and hard year, because I’m usually not typically injured.
“I don’t know where I am. I do know I feel good. Now that I feel good, I can actually focus on training and technique and practice, something that I just literally haven’t been able to do a lot of.”
Standing between Serena and a return to the Wimbledon final is the tricky Barbora Strycova, winner over home hope Johanna Konta, the No 19 seed.
The very year that the umpires at Wimbledon drop the ‘Miss’ and ‘Mrs’ when announcing the score, there has been much interest in Riske’s marital status, ahead of her wedding the weekend after next
Riske has been the very opposite of a bridezilla this Fortnight, with her focus very much on her tennis, instead of her wedding planning, and she took it to Williams on Centre Court in a spirited, pulsating match that lasted a minute over two hours.
Only once did she look at all disorientated, which was when she lost track of the score midway through the opening set and started to walk towards her chair, thinking that game was over. Easily done. The rest of the time, Riske showed great poise in the biggest occasion of her tennis life.
In the politest possible way, with no hint of animosity, there had been plenty of fighting talk ahead of their first meeting.
“I’m ready for a war,” Riske had suggested, while Williams had said of her opponent: “She’s a fighter on the court.”
Anyone who came back from a set down in three of her first four matches, including against the Australian top seed Ash Barty in the fourth round, isn’t lacking for mental fortitude.
Meanwhile, Serena Williams marches on: “I believe in myself. I believe if I’m feeling well, I can be a big competitor in a sport that I love and I’ve done so well at. So just the key word is getting fit and getting back into match play injury-free,” she said.
“So now that I am, I can kind of actually start to, like I say, just play tennis. That has been literally something that I have not been able to do all year.”