Alize Cornet walked out at 5-4 in the second set to serve for her first win over Serena Williams, and just her second win over any Top 10 player since 2008. She had just had four match points erased by a determined world No. 1 in the previous game. What was going through the Frenchwoman’s head as she tried to secure the biggest win of her eight-year career?
“For once, nothing,” she said.
There had certainly been something different about Cornet on this day. In three previous matches against Serena, she had won just one set, but she had no trouble staying with her pace and doing some dictating of her own this evening. Cornet was especially good from the backhand side, where she took Serena’s kick second serves on the rise. Cornet finished the first set with a down-the-line backhand winner, and broke Serena in the opening game of the second with a winning backhand return to the same spot. The world No. 26 played above her ranking by staying aggressive, without trying to do too much. Her relatively low winner count—she had just six in the first set—didn’t mean she only played defensively.
Of course, Cornet got some help from Serena, who was lethargic for most of the first set—she ended it with 17 unforced errors. Williams seemed to have trouble getting into top gear against her lower-ranked opponents in general this week; I thought it might be because she didn’t fear them, though Serena speculated, with a laugh, that it was because she had been watching a turtle at her hotel the last few days.
Whatever the reason, she didn’t snap out of her torpor until she was down 6-4, 2-0. For the next three games, we saw the old Serena, playing with depth, constructing points, and punctuating winners with full screams. After the match, there was some speculation that Serena hadn’t wanted to play her sister Venus in the final, but she looked determined to come back and win to me.
And when she went up 3-2 in the second and reached 30-30 on Cornet’s serve, it seemed for the all the world that she would steamroll her way through—I couldn’t have been the only person watching who had visions of a bagel third set in the near future. But while Serena found her will, she never really found her range. She went big on a return at 30-30 and missed, and Cornet settled back down and held.
She settled so well, in fact, that she began to play even better down the stretch. Cornet came up with two very good returns to break for 4-3, and in the next game heaved up the shot of the match, an over-the-head, running-the-other-way backhand lob that landed on the baseline and briefly sent both players into shock. A few minutes later, Cornet reached match point on Serena’s serve four times, only to see Serena find her best tennis to save each of them and hold. But again, while the effort was there from Serena, her game never was. With Cornet serving at 5-4, Serena made four quick errors, and the Frenchwoman had a 6-4, 6-4 win, one she called the “biggest of my career."
Was Serena’s bad back an issue? She had trouble getting pace on her serve in the second set, and she was slow to the ball at times, but I didn’t see her struggle physically. Credit Cornet: She told herself at one point, “You’re a big girl, you can do this," and she did some growing up today. But she might want to remember to keep her mind empty again tomorrow, when she faces Serena’s sister. Venus is 3-0 in their career head to head.