Heather Watson’s enthralling match with Serena Williams last night – the five times champion eventually prevailed 6-2, 4-6, 7-5 – will no doubt go down in history as yet another example of ‘plucky Brit gives all but loses anyway’ stereotype but in fact this would be unfair to both players and the occasion.
Like most pundits and spectators I had been expecting Serena to blast the British number one off court despite her somewhat erratic play and demeanour in the last two months.
Though winning her 20th Major title only a few weeks ago, overcoming Lucie Safarova in the final of the French Open to remain on course for her second ‘Serena Slam’ and the feat of annexing all four Majors in one season, to this observer the younger Williams sister has seemed vaguely out of sorts in 2015.
I’m conscious that passing critical opinions on probably one of the top three all-time women players may seem inappropriate and disrespectful – rather like giggling aloud during a church service – but I’m going to do it anyway.
Serena will be 34 in September and, although the power and tennis ‘feel’ is still there, I sense that the sheer grind of competing on the women’s tour and getting herself up for the Majors has been taking its toll. Too often this year she has seemed heavy-legged and mentally suspect. Her body language has been ‘down’, her demeanour surly and resigned – my general impression is that she’s not having any fun and that the whole process is a trial rather than an opportunity to express herself.
Let’s not get ahead of ourselves here.
I’m not heralding the end of an empress’s reign or even a watershed on the way down the slippery slope of time. Like all great players, Serena retains that special air of superiority (a certain aura signifying that she operates on a level above her opponents) about her. Whenever she taps into her on-court rhythm, and momentum builds, the games can seem can flash by in seconds rather than minutes. Her strength and power remains unique in the women’s game – her impact in this respect echoing that of Jonah Lomu when he first dominated the men’s rugby union headlines at the 1995 Rugby World Cup – and is often just too much on its own for anyone who is weak, vulnerable, unprepared and/or unable/unwilling to summon the positivity and courage to challenge or circumvent it.
A couple of years ago the 23 year old had a classic flaky ‘plucky Brit’ reputation.
She was prodigiously talented but seemed over-prone to unworthy pre-Wimbledon hype and then humiliating and inevitable, emotional roller coaster, first or second round exits. Mary Poppins forfend, last year she even blamed a sub-standard performance upon ‘a girl thing’, prompting a general media discussion about the effect menstruation upon elite sporting women – a somewhat delicate subject against a background in which the ‘equal pay for equal pay’ issue (mostly male journalists criticising the fact that in Majors women play only best of three sets) gets an annual airing every summer.
Word was that the Guernsey-born kid lacked the killer instinct and that the sparky and younger Laura Robson – she of the Thor-like forehand – was the one to go further in the women’s game if only she did some work upon her fitness.
But flash two years forward to 2015. Robson has only just returned from a 16-month wrist injury issue, only making the Wimbledon draw courtesy of a ‘wild card’ award, whilst Watson (who has been slogging away on tour) is deservedly ranked British number one.
As trailed above, I tuned in last night expecting nothing more than a comfortable two-set win for Serena ending just about on cue for the BBC 6 ‘O Clock News.
The first set shot by in a blur and everything was going to plan. However pumped she was, however much her team must have psyched her up to treat her opponent as just another Jane Doe, Watson suffered from a slow start and an exaggerated respect for the American.
Come the second set and the Watson turn-round. Plainly she had given herself a good talking-to at the change-over and she came out swinging. I guess she’d decided that if she was going down anyway, she had little to lose and much to gain from at least ‘giving it a go’.
Ironically and thrillingly, it worked. The more she went for her shots, the more they started staying in and wrong-footing or surprising her opponent. That’s the great thing about tennis – there can be match-changing shifts of momentum in the playing of sets, or games, or even just a series of ‘deuce/advantage’ points within a single game.
As Watson grew in stature so Williams fell prey to unforced errors. She double-faulted. She looked frustrated, exasperated even. Thus, not without her ups and downs, Watson duly squeezed home in the second set. You could tell an upset was theoretical possible because the match was switched to BBC2 from BBC1 and I was happy to follow it.
By the time Watson reached 3-0 in the third set, two breaks up and on a run of six successive win games, the upset (and a major British triumph) definitely seemed on the cards. Possibly. Hopefully. It was edge-of-the-seat stuff.
However, even when she was serving for the match at 5-4, I sensed that a Watson win would still be a major upset, perhaps the first true ‘sensation’ of Wimbledon 2015 from a one-eyed British perspective [Murray, of course, being a given].
The problem – and answer – lay on the other side of the net. By no means was Williams playing well. She had reportedly suffered badly from asthma or a similar condition at the French Open and was blowing her nose regularly, screaming at herself when either she won a point with a great shot or rally, or lost one with a sub-standard error. However, even when she lost a succession of points, she never dropped her head. She kept the emotions deep inside, took a deep breath and walked quietly but determinedly to her mark. Just after Watson had served for the match – and in the event never got near winning the game – Serena served a love game to 6-5 … and the pressure was on.
This was a great contest that captivated its onlookers. Like a small child pulling herself up to behold the surface of a dining table, Watson got to experience what being a top ten player might be like. The big thing now is whether this match will inspire her to go that extra mile in training, get mentally tougher, grasp that killer instinct and place it in her quiver – or whether she’ll get injured and/or rest upon her laurels.
She certainly needs some serious work upon her serving. Her first serve is pitifully inconsistent and wayward, her second still a bit pat-a-cake. That’s the first technical thing I’d address – you cannot be even a top twenty player without a decent serve.
The way I see it, the only person who can beat Serena this fortnight is Serena herself. She’s plainly suffering mentally – I cannot explain why – but she still has the ammunition and the grit to go all the way. It’s not going to be an easy Wimbledon for her by any stretch of the imagination but when, it comes to the will to prevail, there’s nobody to match her. I’m not saying she is going to win – just that she’s the one to beat.