WIMBLEDON, England — Slowed by a balky ankle, trailing by a service break in the third set of her Wimbledon quarterfinal, Serena Williams appeared to be in trouble Tuesday against an opponent playing the tournament of her life.
Williams was down, yes. But out? No way. And now she is two victories from that 24th Grand Slam title that’s been barely eluding her.
Lifting her play a much-needed notch down the stretch to grab the last three games, capping the comeback with her 19th ace — at 121 mph, no less — Williams reached the semifinals at the All England Club by gutting out a 6-4, 4-6, 6-3 win over 55th-ranked Alison Riske.
“I had to just button up and play hard,” said Williams, who owns seven Wimbledon titles. “She was playing her heart out.”
That she was. Riske, a 29-year-old from Pittsburgh, was appearing in her first major quarterfinal. For Williams, this was No. 51.
That might have made all the difference. It’s Williams who possesses boundless muscle memory in these situations, who knows what it takes to come through in the tightest contests on the biggest stages.
“I definitely thought maybe I had a peek here and there at a couple openings, but Serena really upped her level, as only a champion would,” Riske said.
“It was really, actually, very interesting for me to be on the opposite end, because I felt her up her game and her intensity,” Riske said with a smile. “Yeah, I hope she takes the title now.”
Next for the 37-year-old Williams will be a match against 54th-ranked Barbora Strycova of the Czech Republic, who reached her first Grand Slam semifinal at age 33 with a 7-6 (5), 6-1 victory over No. 19 Johanna Konta of Britain.
“A huge achievement for me,” said Strycova, who is playing in her 53rd major tournament.
The other semifinal Thursday will be No. 7 Simona Halep of Romania against No. 8 Elina Svitolina of Ukraine.
After edging Riske in singles, Williams cooled down by riding a stationary bike while holding her nearly 2-year-old daughter, Olympia, in one arm. Then Williams went out and joined Andy Murray to win their second-round match in mixed doubles 7-5, 6-3 against Fabrice Martin and Raquel Atawo.
Halep, a former No. 1 who won the 2018 French Open, followed up her elimination of 15-year-old sensation Coco Gauff by defeating Zhang Shuai of China 7-6 (4), 6-1 to get to her second semifinal at Wimbledon. Svitolina will make her debut in that round at any major tournament thanks to beating Karolina Muchova of the Czech Republic 7-5, 6-4.
These sorts of stakes, and this sort of setting, are unfamiliar for Riske, who mistakenly headed to her changeover chair thinking the match’s fifth game was over when the score was just 40-15.
Spectators chortled; she grinned and walked back to the baseline.
Even if Williams was hardly perfect, she got by, aided by her greatest-in-the-game serve and Riske’s miscues. Most glaringly, Riske double-faulted five times in the final set, at least somewhat a result of trying to do too much against William’s superb returns.
“It’s no secret that Serena has an amazing serve. But Serena has an equally-as-amazing return,” Riske said. “I’ve never played anyone that has a return like Serena. That put a lot of pressure on my serve.”
Still, Riske played tremendously well for most of the afternoon, just as she did while going 14-1 on grass in 2019 until Tuesday.
She won two of Williams’ first four service games and finished 5 for 5 on break points. Her deep and flat groundstrokes off both sides jarred Williams repeatedly. Until, that is, Riske wilted late — which was understandable, given that she became the first woman in Wimbledon history to play three-setters in five consecutive matches to open the tournament, according to the WTA.
Williams rolled her right ankle and her movement was hardly ideal. Late in the second set, she was visited by a trainer, who applied extra tape to the ankle. That was during a stretch when Riske, talking to herself between points, claimed four games in a row to take the second set and lead the third by a break at 1-0.
“I thought,” Riske said, “I was very close.”
Not close enough. Williams was not going to go quietly. She held at love to lead 4-3, and then came the key game. Riske saved a trio of break points and was a point from 4-all after claiming a point when Williams slipped along the well-worn baseline.
First Williams got back to deuce by using a drop shot to set up a volley winner. Then she earned yet another break point on a thrilling 10-stroke exchange, using a drop shot to bring Riske forward and delivering a volley winner. Williams lifted both arms and jutted her jaw. In the stands, her husband leaped from his seat, pointed his index fingers at her and screamed.
On the next point, Riske double-faulted, handing over the last break Williams needed.
After breaking Steffi Graf’s record for most Grand Slam trophies in the professional era by winning her 23rd at the 2017 Australian Open while pregnant, Williams took time off. Since returning to the tour last season, she came close to equaling Margaret Court’s Slam count of 24 — which was accumulated in part against amateurs — but lost in the finals at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open.
Williams dealt with injuries and illness this year, playing just 12 matches until last week.
“This is the first time since (January) that I actually felt, like, good,” she said at her news conference, while Olympia was held by Williams’ agent at the back of the room. “It’s been a really, really long year for me already, and hard year.”
That’s true. Also true: She’s Serena Williams.
And so here she is, back in Wimbledon’s semifinals for the 12th time.
“She’s something,” Riske said, “our sport has never seen before.”
Big 3 in men’s quarters
The Big Three sure do not appear to be slowing down. If anything, they are as dominant as ever.
Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic head into Wednesday’s quarterfinals at Wimbledon owning 14 of the last 16 championships at the All England Club. They have won the past 10 Grand Slam titles overall and 53 of 64.
And the way they made it through the fourth round, dropping a combined total of 19 games across their three victories, served as simply the latest reminder of the gulf between them and everyone else.
“The best guys now are fully engaged, they know exactly what to expect from the court and the conditions. That helps us to play better. I think with experience, that’s good. We haven’t dropped much energy in any way. It’s not like we’re coming in with an empty tank into the second week,” said Federer, an eight-time champion at Wimbledon. “All these little things help us to then really thrive in these conditions.”
Sam Querrey, the American ranked 65th whose task is to take on Nadal for a semifinal berth, was asked what message the trio has sent with its supremacy over the last 15 years.
“Just: ‘We’re better than you guys,’” Querrey replied.
For the 24th time, Federer, Nadal and Djokovic reached the quarterfinals at a Grand Slam tournament together. On 20 of those previous occasions, one eventually walked away with the trophy. Would be rather surprising if this doesn’t become the 21st.
In addition to No. 3 seed Nadal vs. Querrey, the other matchups Wednesday are No. 1 Djokovic vs. No. 21 David Goffin, No. 2 Federer vs. No. 8 Kei Nishikori, and No. 23 Roberto Bautista Agut vs. No. 26 Guido Pella.
The most excited member of the group was Pella, a 29-year-old from Argentina who eliminated 2016 runner-up Milos Raonic and 2018 runner-up Kevin Anderson on his first trip past the third round at a major tournament.
“It’s the first time in my career I feel important,” Pella said.
If Federer and Nadal both win, they would meet in the semifinals, just like they did at the French Open last month, when Nadal was on his way to a 12th championship in Paris. They haven’t played each other in any round at Wimbledon since the marvelous 2008 final, when Nadal edged Federer 9-7 in the fifth set in dwindling daylight.
First things first, though.
Querrey’s serve could be the key to his matchup against Nadal, who has won two of his 18 Grand Slam trophies on the All England Club’s grass. Querrey — whose best showing at a major was reaching Wimbledon’s semifinals two years ago — leads the tournament with 100 aces and by winning 71 of 72 service games.
But Nadal, who is 33, is no slouch as a returner. He has converted 49% of his break chances so far, 19 of 39, which is second-best to Federer among the quarterfinalists.
“He doesn’t take a point off. Just being lefty is kind of a challenge in itself. You know, he’s intense. He’s a shotmaker. He’s energetic,” Querrey said. “You know when you go out there, he’s going to make you beat him.”
The same could be said of Federer, who seeks his 21st Grand Slam title as his 38th birthday approaches on Aug. 8, or Djokovic, who is aiming for his 16th at age 32.
While Nishikori has only been to one Grand Slam final, at the 2014 U.S. Open, and Goffin has yet to reach the semifinals, getting to this portion of a major tournament is old hat for their opponents.
That, of course, makes a difference.
“The experience we have helps confidence. Everything that we have achieved in our careers, obviously, we carry onto the court, then most of the players feel that, feel pressure,” Djokovic said. “For us, it’s another match on the center stage that we’ve experienced so many times.”