Sunday 25 February 2018

Watson goes down swinging as Serena digs deep

Serena Williams reacts after winning a point during her victory over Heather Watson
Serena Williams reacts after winning a point during her victory over Heather Watson

Simon Briggs

The Centre Court crowd has never been louder. Not on people’s Monday, not even when Andy Murray won Wimbledon. And they so nearly carried Heather Watson to the greatest upset by a British player in the history of this tournament. She served for a place in the fourth round, and stood within two points of stopping the Serena slam in its tracks.

It might sound, from that bald summary, as if this was a case of an opportunity wasted. On the face of things, it was. Even Serena Williams said in her immediate post-match interview that Watson – whom she tipped as a future top-20 player – “should probably have won the match” after leading by a double-break in that final set.

But Watson’s face at the end of the match, as the two women shook hands after a 6-2, 4-6, 7-5 victory for Williams, told its own story. As she smiled wryly up at umpire Kader Nouni, she did not give the impression that she was mentally replaying the points that got away. It was not that sort of match, because Williams’s power was on a different scale.

Watson must have felt like a Lilliputian at times, throwing ropes and pegs around Williams’s mighty frame. But in the end she could not stop the supreme being of women’s tennis from breaking her bonds and escaping from peril. If Dustin Brown’s victory over Rafael Nadal on Thursday night was a mesmerising contest, this was even morompelling, and mainly because of the crowd.

It felt there were three participants in this drama, because the sheer volume and passion they generated made such an impact on the players’ mindsets.

The first set played out entirely as predicted. Huge serves and withering power from one side of the net; plucky defence and plenty of running on the other. As the players sat down with Williams leading 6-2 after just 25 minutes, the All England Club must have been casting around for another match to shove on Centre Court.

But Watson was not content to be ushered away with the sort of sympathetic applause normally heard at school sports day. In the second set, she went to a place she has never been to before.

It was not just that she scrambled every single ball back – her key asset since she was just a hopeful teenager near the bottom of the Bollettieri Academy pecking order – she was also clubbing the ball with muscles fuelled by the energy of that wild-eyed crowd.

Backhand winners down the line, clever little drop-shots, even aces of her own to match the Williams barrage: it was a step onto a different plane to what we have seen from her before. Suddenly Williams went from bully to quarry. And the world No 1 clearly felt persecuted by the crowd as well.

When she was broken for the first time to go 2-3 down, she tossed her towel in pique as she returned to her chair.

To underline the raucousness of the occasion, it must be said that play frequently had to be delayed while the more giddy and hysterical fans were shushed by everyone else.


Watson received several standing ovations, including one as she served for the match at 5-4 in the final set. But there were also numerous times when people were yelping or screaming in the middle of rallies, not out of any intention to distract but because they were so beside themselves with excitement.

Williams regularly gestured in frustration and finally approached Nouni in the penultimate game to argue that the noise was not fair on either player.

She received a round of boos in response, and wagged her finger angrily in the direction of the hecklers.

This is not what we expect from the traditionally buttoned-up Centre Court crowd, yet there was something about Watson’s girlish, vulnerable-looking frame and Williams’s overwhelming strength that made this a true David-and-Goliath encounter. Underdogs have seldom seemed so charming.

At 5-4, deuce, Watson was two points away from becoming the first woman in 12 months to defeat Williams at a slam. But the door closed, not because of any error on her part, but because Williams – who next faces sister Venus – slammed a huge forehand winner up the line on the next point – a shot of sheer conviction and self-belief that she would not have been capable of last year.

Since her defeat to Alize Cornet here last summer, Williams has brought a new mental steadiness to what was already the most punishing and complete game that women’s tennis has ever seen. She held her nerve, and she remained on course for the holy

grail of tennis: the calendar grand slam.

For Williams, 17 victories in grand slams have been notched in 2015, and she needs 11 more to achieve that improbable feat.

For Watson, the next challenge is to reproduce this sort of performance against players who are not all-time legends.

With any luck, both women will be able to look back on this magnificent match as a step on the road to even greater things. (© Daily Telegraph, London)


Live, BBC2/Setanta Ire, 11.05

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