Heather Watson observed with some cause during a good run of results last season that anyone can beat anyone on their day in the modern game.
Williams, who remains an island of excellence in a sea of competence, won 6-2, 4-6, 7-5 in two and a quarter hours but had to battle for it all the way, coming from 0-3 in the final set. Watson, who can not have played better in her career, saved three match points but could not hold the world No1 at bay in the end.
Williams is one match closer to not only her sixth Wimbledon title but the goal that drives her more than anything has done in recent years, a calendar grand slam, and moves through to the fourth round, where she will play her sister, Venus, who beat the Serb Aleksandra Krunic 6-3, 6-2 in only 71 minutes on No2 Court.
From the start on Centre Court, there were echoing calls of: “Come on Heather! You can do it!” Her every success was wildly cheered, her every mistake drawing an “aah” or “ooh”. When the American faltered, there was joy unconfined.
An early ace and a backhand winner settled Watson’s nerves on the biggest day of her career but she could not resist the power of her august opponent when Williams unleashed a forehand from mid-court to break in the fourth game.
When the American held with brutal swiftness, the understandable misgivings Watson’s supporters must have had beforehand surfaced. Although Williams has been vulnerable in big tournaments over the past couple of years, she appeared focused and strong-minded this season, with the Australian Open and the French title in her kit bag already.
Everything about her game was so much bigger than Watson’s: the pace, power, placement of shot. The British player looked smaller and more vulnerable without a ball even being hit, and Williams cruised to 5-2.
Serving to stay in the first set Watson went all out on first and second serves, aiming as wide and as deep in the service box as she could. And she could have done without an overrule of a line call in her favour for 15-30. But she could blame nobody but herself for her next shot, a wild forehand that did not even threaten the tramlines. It was not looking good.
Would the second set be any different? Would Williams tire just a little, or lose focus to give Watson even a sniff of a fightback?
There was no sign of it to begin with. Williams held to love and threatened to break at the first opportunity. The shouts of encouragement for the home player grew weaker and more sporadic. Williams kept her pinned on the baseline in nearly every exchange, one return off a first serve seeming to take Watson off her feet. But she held. It was heroic stuff, with more to come.
Williams was hitting her returns at 64 miles an hour – 20 miles faster than Watson. And a telling statistic halfway through the match was that Watson had just one unforced error next to her name. It was not so much her lack of quality, but the dominance of the woman of her esteemed tormentor.
Watson got a couple of points up on Williams’s serve in the fifth game, prodding the American into a loud and quite menacing response, her winning forehand ripped with all the intensity of a right hook in a world heavyweight title fight. Another followed.
And then the unimaginable: Watson got a break point. To secure it would be a victory in itself, surely – but Williams found another huge serve for deuce. When she hit long to give Watson a second look, there was further hope. A serve hit the net – and another. Her first double fault – and Watson, to the astonishment of everyone but perhaps herself, led 3-2.
Williams broke back immediately, held as if guarding the crown jewels, but struggled to deliver the knockout bloke as Watson stayed in the fight to 4-4. This was her best period of the match. Hope curdled into resignation then swung back to flickering ambition.
Watson forced another break point in the ninth game and again the crowd went wild when Williams handed her the chance to serve for the set with a forehand that strayed wide.
Williams was experiencing rare anxiety, Watson held with some delightful ground strokes and they went to a third set after and hour and 12 minutes.
She was not done yet, breaking at the start of the third, and the prospect of a major upset loomed. Watson held for 2-0 as Williams’s nervous ground strokes mounted, and what had been a cakewalk was now a full-scale drama.
When Watson broke again to lead 3-0 after winning six games in a row, Williams looked close to an emotional collapse, tears welling in her eyes.
But she fought like a tiger to break back, then hold.
These were the crucial moments of the contest. If Watson could hold her nerve, she would surely win. She led 40-love in the sixth game but Williams rediscovered her composure to level, and the odds swung back in her favour.
Williams celebrated each point now with a knee-bent crouch and scream. Her will to win was etched in her face. Watson’s was contained but no less fierce. Williams saved break point to hold for 4-3 and the pressure was back on Watson. She held with a deft volley.
Watson’s defence hit stratosphere levels at the start of the ninth game. Williams, plainly rattled, double-faulted then hit long on both wings after excellent rallies, and the 23-year-old Watson served for the match after two of the best hours of her career.
Williams dug deep into her extraordinary reserves to grab two break points, and returned long on the first one; Watson hit the line to save the second.
Williams got another chance – and Watson saved with her third ace of the match. Williams got a fourth break point and this time Watson cracked, netting her backhand.
Williams held to love but blew match point with a lazy forehand. She got another with a smash, then netted again. A third arrived at the end of a long rally, and this time she benefited from a favourable, though correct, line call when the ball landed at Watson’s feet. What a match it was.
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