Serena Williams is gradually coming back, she was able to break straight back in the third set after a difficult start as she goes, all the way to a 12th Wimbledon semi-final in pursuit of an eighth title and that record-equaling 24th Slam. Which is great and good for her.
But she struggled in the second set and Riske managed to edge her way back into the match
Remarkable even on a day like this one when she often looked nothing like the force of old. A huge slice of credit in that goes to Alison Riske, the American who seems so comfortable on this surface and who has made a brilliant habit of winning marathon matches here.
All four of her previous rounds had been won in three sets and that is where this one headed after Riske levelled at one set each. At that point she had her chance to take the biggest scalp in tennis, but after breaking Williams at the start of the third, her own serve failed to do its job.
And that, really, was the tale of the match – Williams’s serve was misfiring, Riske’s was all over the place. Between them, there were an astonishing 11 breaks and Williams came out of the carnage on top through sheer force of will.
We know that she can’t quite do all of the brilliant things that she used to do, of course. The movement isn’t the same, the serve isn’t always so sharp, the forehand in this match was often wayward.
But the fighter in her is just as big as it ever was and watching Williams slug it out remains one of the great sights in sport. She is pursuing Maragaret Court and history and that first Slam since returning from maternity leave, and so long as she can, she will keep punching.
That much was evident in the revelation on Monday that she was fined £7,988 for damaging a practice court ahead of the tournament – she expects the best from herself even in training.
That is kept away from public eyes, but on the match court, that hunger and appetite, is brilliant to watch, perhaps even more so now that the opposition finally have a chance by virtue of Williams’s age.
The opening set of this one was an entertaining mess. The first of five breaks came against the Williams serve at 1-1, before the veteran hit back to go from 3-1 down to 3-2.
Having clawed back to 3-3, Williams was then broken again after launching a forehand long. Her game was not where it needed to be and her droopy, downbeat body language said as much.
Despite the difficulties, Riske wasn’t doing enough to capitalise. Her serve, coming in at around 96mph, was simply not sufficient to intimidate, nor big enough buy a few cheap points.
For that reason Williams was able to break to 30 for 4-4 and once she held her serve, it was over to Riske to serve to stay in the set.
She quickly fell 15-40 behind, and Williams sealed at 6-4 on the second of those set points, perhaps fortuitously as Riske stuck a racket on a passing shot that appeared to be going long and succeeded only in framing the ball into the net.
At that stage, the telling statistic, aside from the loss of three Riske service games, was that the younger woman had won less than half of the points on her delivery. The rest of her game was holding up.
The second set was more stable. The level was good, and neither player had so much as a look at the other’s serve until 3-3 when Riske twice brought Williams back to deuce.
Williams responded by raising her game and the backhand winner down the line from the lowest of crouches to reach advantage was probably her best shot of the match. She held with the next point.
That was the alarm, though, as the next time Williams served, she was broken. Riske had taken the game to 30-40 with a forehand winner and after forcing Williams out wide on the right on break point, came to the net and cushioned a half-volley for the game.
From there, the American with such a gentle serve in the first set closed out for 6-4 without dropping a point. Her stats? No break points were offered up in the set and 79 per cent of points on her first serve were won. A major transformation.
Williams slumped in her chair and evidently was not out of the fog by the start of the third set. She fell 15-40 behind and a forehand volley from Riske brought the upset into focus.
Williams was able to break straight back in the third set after a difficult start
But then, just like that, the pattern of the first set returned as Williams broke straight back, sealed with a clean forehand winner. She then broke again for 3-1 when Riske double faulted.
Home and dried? An earlier model of the same player would have made it so. This one, naturally enough, is more vulnerable and so from 40-15 up in the next game, she was broken. Bonkers, really.
At 3-3, Williams got a hold – it was cheered like a break – and then broke in a thrilling game for 5-3. The rally that brought up the decisive break point was superb. Likewise the forehand winner from Williams for 30-15 as she served for the match.
After two hours, she reached match point. She closed with an ace and a roar. Just like old times. On she goes.