Serena Williams escapes against upstart foe, partisan Wimbledon fans

Houdini has nothing on Serena Williams.

The world's No. 1 player, the woman who has now won 24 consecutive major tournament tennis matches, who is trying to win a fourth straight major tournament and also the magical calendar year Grand Slam, made the great escape Friday.

No handcuffs. No locks and chains. Just guts.

To merely say she beat Heather Watson, 6-2, 4-6, 7-5, in a third-round match at Wimbledon is not nearly enough.

The elements that must be added to that include:

•She was playing on Centre Court , in the most prestigious tennis event in the world, against a British player. If she felt like a Christian in the Roman Colosseum, you couldn't have faulted her.

There is supporting the hometown player, and there is going overboard. This one had the feel of excessive rooting for the lions.

The line separating what is supportive and what is negative and disruptive is elusive. The Brits are so provincial in their slobbering adoration of their sports stars that it sometimes defies description. The media seems to lead it here.

For example, when Rafael Nadal lost Thursday, the next day's papers and broadcasts were less about German journeyman Dustin Brown's achievement and more about how that outcome may have helped "our Andy," third-seeded Andy Murray.

In her news conference after her match Friday, Williams was careful about what she said, but she said enough. Asked what would be her toughest home crowd to face, she said, "I'll take Heather Watson at Wimbledon."

She made it clear that she understood rooting for the home player, but also added, "It was intense today. I don't think I've ever played with a crowd here like that. . . ."

A few questions later, she added, "I've never seen them so vocal. I've never heard boos here before. That was new for me."

•She trailed in the third set, 3-0. Then she fought her way back to 3-3 and Watson, a real fighter who scampered after everything Williams sent her way and got most of those shots back, got it to 5-4 and deuce. Watson was two points from the upset of her life and of the tournament.

But Williams saved it to 5-all, then played an amazing service game, kind of out of nowhere, hitting two aces and a service winner, for 6-5.

Serving at 5-6, Watson continued to be the ultimate bulldog, saving two match points before a Williams shot hit the baseline on the third. Watson challenged, Hawk-Eye showed the ball on the line, and it was over.

It had been 2 hours 15 minutes of dripping drama, followed immediately by a massive gloomy parade to the exits.

•Williams knew that, with a victory, she would have to play her sister, Venus, in the fourth round. They talk around that, but they hate it.

With Serena seeded No. 1 and Venus No. 16, that bracketing made it clear — a fourth-round match was on the horizon. And now it has arrived. Monday will be the day.

The last time they played was in Montreal last year, and Venus won. Serena has a 14-11 lead in their head-to-head matchups. They have played nine times in Grand Slam finals and Serena has won six of those.

Looking ahead to Monday's match, it seemed as if Serena was establishing the groundwork for a loss to her sister. With most players, that would appear to merely be psychology. With the Williams sisters, what is real is difficult to determine.

Serena told a TV interviewer immediately after her match that "Venus is in better form right now."

Then, in her news conference, she said she was in awe of her sister when she watches her practicing next to her and added that, if she were a fan, "I'd be rooting for Venus, because of her incredible story."

Venus Williams, who came into the interview room four hours after her third consecutive straight-sets victory, 6-3, 6-2 over Aleksandra Krunic of Serbia, was at best evasive about her feelings on a matchup with her sister.

Question: "Does [the emotion] make it harder or easier when you face her?"

Answer: "You just have to be focused. There are no easy points against Serena."

Not to be lost in the anticipation of the Williams sisters' meeting, or the apparent home crowd vitriol toward Serena, was the performance of Watson, a 23-year-old who began the tournament ranked No. 59.

"This one was super, super, super close," she said, "so it hurts a lot."

Williams was near tears several times. Missed shots and opportunities were part of that. Also, being so loudly outnumbered and overwhelmed seemed to be, too.

"I had some negative thoughts," she said. "I started thinking about finding a dance class [tomorrow], or hanging around to see Venus play.

"I wasn't able to keep up. Sometimes, you just don't have your day."

But in the end, she did.

And that was to the amazement and chagrin of a Centre Court crowd that felt the big upset in its grasp and saw it slip away.

Serena Williams had weathered the best efforts of a determined and high-performing young challenger. She had weathered more than 13,000 loudly wishing her failure, weakly disguised as wishing Watson well.

Few could have overcome that.

But then, few have won 20 major titles and are still going for more. After this one, the eventual superlatives attached to Williams' career must include a new word.


Twitter: @DwyreLATimes

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