The contrasts were vast and formidable between 23-year-old Watson and Williams, who turns 34 in September. Watson even admitted that as a youngster, she used to have a photo of Williams on her wall. Now she would get the chance to play her for the first time. What’s more, she would do so on the greatest stage she could possibly imagine: the Centre Court at the All England Club.
But what is there left to say of the woman who is playing in her 60th Major? Certainly nothing that Watson would not know only too well. Five times a Wimbledon singles champion and five times a women’s doubles champion with sister Venus, Williams owns more Grand Slam titles in singles, doubles, and mixed doubles combined than any active players, male or female.
Despite so many successes, Williams was still targeting milestones as she took on Watson: a 21st Major singles title would complete the non-calendar Grand Slam—holding all four titles at the same time—for the second time in her career. It would also keep alive her chances of claiming the yet rarer achievement, the calendar Slam.
And all this on top of holding the No1 ranking for two and a half years, by a vast margin of over 4,000 points.
Watson faced, then, the biggest task in tennis. Only one woman had beaten Williams, once, this entire season, and that was No2 seed, Petra Kvitova, who happens to be the defending champion.
Naturally, Williams paid Watson due respect ahead of the match.
“I don’t know her at all. I see her around the locker room a little bit—she’s always smiling, so she seems to be super sweet. I know Venus has played her before. I’ve watched that match a few times. I feel like she does really well on grass… So I know it’s not going to be easy for me. She has nothing to lose.”
But having respect, and letting her opponent get a foothold when a place in the second week of Wimbledon was at stake, are two very different things. Williams dropped only one point on serve in her opening two service games and jumped all over Watson’s serve to break in the fourth. After 25 minutes, she broke Watson again for the set, 6-2.
But the crowd were not so easily dampened. Their cheers were redoubled, and roars accompanied every point that Watson won. With the wind whipping up, it was now Williams who struggled to hold serve, and she was clearly thrown out of her rhythm and composure not just by the conditions and the increasingly vocal crowd but the variety of shot and pace in Watson’s clever game.
Come the fifth game and Williams saved one break point and double faulted on the second—but in typical fashion, broke straight back.
But Watson’s confidence had grown and Williams was still out of sorts. The American survived deuce, but Watson had her on the run with drop shots and lobs to stay level at 4-4. And with a passage of stunning defensive play, she broke again to lead 5-4: Her reward, a standing ovation.
Perhaps no surprise that she served a tense game, and each second serve was punished ruthlessly. Watson double faulted to bring up break point but dug in to save it and two more deuces to hold the set, 6-4. If the Centre Court roof had been shut, it would have blown off with the roar as close to 15,000 of the 16,000 rose to their feet.
And if that was not enough to get the British blood pumping, a 3-0 lead for Watson courtesy of two breaks in the third set was.
Then two things happened: Watson tensed, and Williams summoned up her greatest effort, roaring herself on with every shot. Watson faced 15-40, survived, battled through six more deuces, brought up another break point with a double fault, and finally succumbed with a wide forehand.
The first break back was soon followed by another, but Watson still fought on: three deuces and a break point came and went, but she went on to hold to love and then, shockingly, thrillingly, she broke to love. She would serve for the match.
Again, the nerves took control and Williams took advantage—though it took her four attempts—to grab an energy-sapping break: 5-5. Four winning serves for a love hold and Williams pummelled Watson into submission one last time, on her 20th break point of the match. Williams had set and match, 7-5, but knew she had been an atmosphere like never before at Wimbledon.
“I’ve had some tough losses here, but that was probably my toughest match here, playing Heather in front of her home crowd. She played unbelievable.”
If that was certainly a tough contest, and the next is likely to be just as bad—against sister and No16 seed Venus. It will be their 26th career meeting, their last coming in Montreal last year—which Venus won—and the last in a Grand Slam in the final of this very tournament in 2009—won by Serena.
Whichever reaches the quarter-finals could face either Victoria Azarenka, who beat Kristina Mladenovic 6-4, 6-4, or Belinda Benic, who beat Bethanie Mattek-Sands 7-5, 7-5.
In the bottom quarter of this half of the draw, No4 Maria Sharapova beat Irina-Camelia Begu, 6-4, 6-3, while the No6 seed Lucie Safarova beat Sloane Stephens, 3-6, 6-3, 6-1.
MORE: The latest football news
MORE: The latest tennis news