Serena provided beneficial test by grass guru Alison Riske

Serena provided beneficial test by grass guru Alison Riske

Williams now stands only two matches away from that elusive 24th major and a tie with Margaret Court for the all-time lead.

LONDON—Across three tumultuous sets against an opponent who performed inspirationally in her first quarterfinal at a Grand Slam tournament, Serena Williams was given the sternest of tests before claiming a 6-4, 4-6, 6-3 win over Alison Riske. Serena was broken five times in a match of innumerable momentum shifts. Twice she had to battle from a break down before capturing the opening set. She lost her serve at the start of the final set. She was never allowed to find comfort as the perspicacious Riske kept raising the stakes.

In the end, however, Serena moved on to the penultimate round of the world’s preeminent tennis tournament because of her big occasion experience. The stature and match-playing sophistication of Serena was one of the primary factors in her victory, but the other was the instability of the Riske second serve, which clearly lacks the requisite spin to make it reliable under pressure. 

The world No. 55 double faulted five times in that final set, including two on break points. She had doubled faulted only once over the first two sets. Most of these doubles were not even close, flying way long. But the fact remained that from the backcourt in her first career appointment against Serena, Riske shined. Her commanding flat forehand down the line was a pillar in her game. She caught Serena off guard time and time again with the backhand down the line. And her return of serve was stellar. But, ultimately, when the chips were down in the third set, Riske was guilty of far too many self-inflicted wounds.

Riske settled into the proceedings remarkably well. Although Serena released three aces on her way to a 40-30 lead at 1-1, Riske took three points in a row to secure the first break of the afternoon. She soon advanced to 3-1. But the 11th seed held on swiftly and then fended off a determined Riske in the sixth game after the younger American rallied from 0-40 to deuce. On her fourth break point, Serena came through to reach 3-3. Riske was unruffled, breaking at 15 for 4-3 when her backhand return raised chalk on the sideline.

Serena predictably raised her intensity decidedly in the following game to reach 4-4, held at love with three consecutive aces for 5-4, and broke at 30 to seal the set on a run of three clutch games in a row. In that span, the seven-time champion swept 12 of 16 points. Serena was hitting harder, finding better depth, and setting the tempo. But the complexion of the contest changed significantly in the second set. Both players holding convincingly, Riske made good on 76% of her first serves and won an impressive 79% of those points, backing it up with penetrating forehands that stayed low on the grass to keep the former Wimbledon champion at bay. With the score locked at 3-3 in that second set, Serena was ahead 40-0 but Riske twice pushed the score to deuce before her renowned adversary held on tenuously.

Riske was buoyed by how she going toe to toe with Serena. She held at 15 for 4-4 and then broke at 30 with a sparkling move. Approaching behind a forehand down the line, she read the 37-year-old’s passing shot perfectly, making an elegant forehand half volley winner. Serving at 5-4, the 29-year-old held at love to make it one set all, pouring in all four first serves in that game.

Riske broke at 15 to commence the third set, closing out that memorable game with a backhand return winner down the line, and followed by a forehand swing volley into the clear. Having won four consecutive games, she needed to hold on for 2-0, but a wild double fault long at 30-30 led to a crucial break for Serena.

The 37-year-old promptly held at 15 for 2-1 after three more aces and then broke Riske for 3-1 on a double fault at ad-out. She moved briskly to 40-15 in the fifth game but an unrelenting Riske collected four points in a row, driving a two-hander down the line to set up a winner to the open court. Despite a double fault at 40-30 in the sixth game, Riske made it to 3-3. But down the stretch, Serena was Serena and Riske was too aware of the icon standing on the other side of the net. The 23-time Grand Slam champion held at love for 4-3 with an ace, and then Riske made one last concerted stand.

Down 15-40 in the eighth game, the first-time Grand Slam quarterfinalist saved two break points and then erased a third, advancing to game point. Serena sent a fine drop shot down the line off the forehand to draw Riske in, and was easily able to punch a forehand volley into the open court. The next point was virtually identical. This time the drop shot from Serena was not as good, but Riske’s backhand up the line response was inadequate. Serena once more sent the volley into the open court. And then Riske cracked, double faulting flagrantly long, handing the seven-time Wimbledon champion a 5-3 lead. A resolute Serena opened and closed the last game with her 18th and 19th aces, sending both down the T, holding at 15 to complete a wrenching triumph in two hours and one minute.

Serena lauded Riske for the way she competed. She said, “Alison, I mean she has played great throughout the whole tournament and has 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.”

Those were ironic words. The fact remains that Riske beat herself as well. It was a combination of the Serena’s will and Riske’s lack of faith in her second serve when it counted that separated the winner from the loser.

Riske pointed out afterwards, “It’s no secret that Serena has an amazing serve but I’ve never played anyone that has a return like Serena. That puts a lot of pressure on my serve. I was then more than cognizant when I was missing my first serve.”

Be that as it may, Riske will move up substantially from her current ranking at No. 55 and could find herself seeded at the US Open. Her run of four consecutive three set triumphs at Wimbledon came to an end honorably. As for Serena, she now stands only two matches away from that elusive 24th major and a tie with Margaret Court for the all-time lead among women. To win this title she may have to elevate her game in the days ahead, but the feeling grows that she will defeat Barbora Strycova in the semifinals on Thursday and then secure an eighth Wimbledon singles crown on Saturday.