In a feisty, emotional display in which her mood was often as dark as the skies above, Serena Williams had to dig deep to come back from a set down to defeat her compatriot Christina McHale.
Amid huge tension, McHale held Williams at bay for the majority of an absorbing match and appeared on the verge of a shock victory before eventually crumbling at the last. It was not until the ninth game of the deciding set that the doughty American finally succumbed. At one point in the final set, Williams had been 0-2 and 15-40 down.
By the time the reigning champion eventually punched down three aces to find a way to secure victory, the overwhelming feeling was relief. “I felt like I was definitely in warrior mode. I was out there playing for my life, playing to stay in the tournament,” she said afterwards.
It was a draining day for the Williams sisters. Oracene Price, their mother, had dashed from watching Venus finally triumph in a rain delayed three set thriller on No1 Court to take her seat for another hugely tense epic on Centre.
With the threat of rain constant, eventually requiring a delay while the roof was closed following a downpour at 4-4 in the first set, doubts over the world No1’s ability to conquer her demons on her quest to equal Steffi Graf’s open era record of 22 grand slams also hung heavy in the air.
So it proved as the reigning champion flirted with disaster. But Williams showed all her power to recovery to eventually win 6-7 (7-9), 6-2, 6-4 against a dogged, brave opponent who saved a total of 14 of the 19 break points she faced.
But with Williams a break and 15-40 down in the deciding set, McHale’s hitherto rock solid composure cracked and she served up two double faults to hand the initiative back to her onetime childhood hero.
Swinging between fearsome shot-making and ragged impatience, the six-times Wimbledon champion had been on a knife edge up to that point – just as she was in the third round last year against Heather Watson.
“There were times when I was down and out but I continued to struggle and fight. That is what I do best,” she said. “I think I’m amazing in tight matches. I don’t give up.”
McHale fought too, seemingly inspired by an atmosphere that began to bubble once the roof rolled over. She saved three break points in the fifth game of the deciding set and then after four deuces managed to hold her serve.
Williams was alternating between bludgeoning winners and snatching at her shots. She made 54 winners to her opponent’s 16 but, equally, made 40 unforced errors to McHale’s 18.
To her huge credit, McHale did not crumple and continued to get under the skin of her illustrious opponent – scampering for every ball, staying calm and refusing to be intimidated.
It took until the ninth game of the deciding set for Williams to definitively seize the initiative, breaking the McHale serve following a game that included an epic rally that brought the crowd to their feet.
McHale had earlier taken the first set to ignite the contest. Both players had saved set points during a tense tie-break when Williams slammed a forehand into the net and after 69 minutes, the reigning champion found herself a set down.
A furious Williams, who had missed an earlier chance to take the set on the narrowest of Hawkeye calls, took her seat and smashed her racket into the ground five times. She finally flung it behind her, where it skidded along the grass and into the arms of a waiting TV cameraman. He smiled. She glowered. “I was just really angry and she was playing great,” said Williams.
It was the climax to a seesawing set that had tilted in favour of McHale, a decade her junior and 64 ranking places beneath her, by the narrowest of margins. But that outbreak of petulance appeared to fire Williams up. She won five games in a row on her way to achieving parity in less than half the time it took her to surrender the first set.
She began, as she sometimes does, by flirting with disaster. McHale, ranked just the ninth best American out of 14 in the women’s top 100, successfully got under her skin.
Williams dropped her very first service game, slipped over and seemed to be going through all sorts of private anguish even before the match was half an hour old. Under darkening skies, there was a foreboding in the air. McHale had already played Williams twice this season and had not disgraced herself on either occasion, taking the 21-times grand slam winner to three sets in Miami.
Here, she was far from overawed. Every time Williams tried to impose herself on her opponent, McHale refused to yield.
Yet, as so often down a stellar career, Williams was eventually able to locate her poise and power when it mattered most. “I know mentally, no one can break me,” she declared at the end. “I’m ready for it. I’m ready for any challenge.”
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