Alize Cornet was given the ultimate task for a player of her type, one who has frequently had trouble controlling her nerves and has built a résumé as former prodigy who has not completely realized her abundant talent.
Cornet was asked to serve out a match against Serena Williams on the biggest stage of them all, Wimbledon. And she was asked to do it after she had failed in the same assignment just two games earlier in the third set. At stake: Just her second trip to the fourth round at a major.
Cornet answered that call with verve and poise, playing a rock-solid game to usher Williams out of Wimbledon in the third round—the earliest the five-time champion has been eliminated there since 2005. Cornet won this wildly fluctuating, interruption-marred match in a little over two hours, 1-6, 6-3, 6-4.
The result must seem surreal to anyone who abandoned watching or following the score after Williams, returning to No. 1 Court after a four-plus hour rain delay with a break in hand and even at deuce in the third game, rolled through the remainder of the first set. She won the first five games after the resumption, but in a blink of an eye she had given up the same number to leave Cornet up 5-0 in the second set.
Williams would avoid the shut-out by snapping to life and ripping off the next three games, but Cornet then put to rest the notion that Serena had merely fallen asleep at the switch for the bulk of the second set. She quickly built a 40-15 lead when she served at 5-3, then closed out the set by following a serve to the net and putting away an on-the-run forehand volley. It was a shot, and a statement, that raised eyebrows.
Up to this point, the developing theme had been that Williams was struggling to get her usual dividend from her serve. She was also hard-pressed to hit her expected number of winners, partly because her opponent was getting to many of her most penetrating rally shots, but also because Cornet herself was playing for keeps. Who would have guessed that at the end of this clash, Cornet and Williams would have struck the same number of aces, and so few of them—just three apiece?
If that ace stat seems unusual, so does the one tracking winners. Williams had 29 for the match, just one more than Cornet.
Still, Williams watchers probably assumed that hitting a speed bump in the second set would only inspire her to gather her game and lay down the hammer in the third. And when Williams struggled through the nearly 12-minute first game of the final set to emerge with a hold—fending off four break points in the process—her most ardent fans must have braced for the punishment phase of Cornet’s trial.
But Cornet held the next game with relative ease, and it was at that point that it began to sink in that Williams really was in trouble. Williams challenged in that game, but in a position to take it to deuce, she made one of her numerous (on this day) service-return errors. Williams generated so little racquet-head speed on that one that for a moment it looked like it had been hit by Agnieszka Radwanska. Two more holds followed to make it 2-2.
It was Williams who blinked first in the third set. Once again, Cornet was pressing, and she parlayed three winners into a 15-40 lead against Serena’s serve. She was unable to capitalize on either of those break points thanks to a terrible, anxiety-born forehand error and a Williams backhand winner.
But Cornet kept plugging away in that game. She reached advantage, but made a backhand service-return error, bringing her break-point conversion rate in the set to 0-7. She persisted, though, and booked her eighth break point a moment later. She finally cashed in on that one with an unreturned servicee return from the forehand.
Cornet managed a hold and then broke Williams again, as the commentariat soberly realized that the Frenchwoman, seeded No. 25 and still just 24, was not about to fold. She pressed Williams again in the seventh game, hitting two winners that helped bring the score to 15-40. Williams helped Cornet out then, surrendering the break point at the first chance with a backhand error.
Cornet served for the match at 5-2, but Williams made a push and created a break. Serena then held for 4-5, and the challenge to Cornet was obvious: It’s your match—if you have the guts to take it. Cornet did just that.
Willliams made a whopper of a backhand error to lose the first point. Then, after a Cornet forehand ticked the let cord during a rally, Williams drove an inside-out forehand wide. The next point produced another rally but, increasingly desperate, Williams unwisely attacked the net behind a down-the-middle approach. Cornet hit her pass right at Williams, who was unable to handle the pace and dumped the backhand volley into the net.
That made it match point. Cornet then played a forehand drop shot—fitting, for she had used the shot to great effect all day. Williams reached it, but was unable to dump back over the net. Just like that, it was over, and Cornet had every right to declare her mission accomplished—with flair.
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