WIMBLEDON, England — Slowed by a balky ankle, trailing by a service break in the third set of her Wimbledon quarterfinal, Serena Williams appeared to be in trouble Tuesday against an opponent playing the tournament of her life.
Williams was down, yes. But out? No way. And now she is two victories from that 24th Grand Slam title that has been barely eluding her.
Lifting her play a much-needed notch down the stretch to grab the last three games, capping the comeback with her 19th ace — at 121 mph, no less — Williams reached the semifinals at the All England Club by gutting out a 6-4, 4-6, 6-3 win over 55th-ranked Alison Riske.
“I had to just button up and play hard,” said Williams, who owns seven Wimbledon titles. “She was playing her heart out.”
That she was. Riske, a 29-year-old from Pittsburgh, was appearing in her first major quarterfinal. For Williams, this was No. 51.
That might have made all the difference. It’s Williams who possesses boundless muscle memory in these situations, who knows what it takes to produce in the tightest moments on the biggest stages.
Photo: Mike Hewitt / Getty Images
“I definitely thought maybe I had a peek here and there at a couple of openings, but Serena really upped her level, as only a champion would,” Riske said.
“It was really, actually, very interesting for me to be on the opposite end, because I felt her up her game and her intensity,” Riske said. “Yeah, I hope she takes the title now.”
Next for Williams, 37, will be a match against 54th-ranked Barbora Strycova of the Czech Republic, who reached her first Grand Slam semifinal at age 33 with a 7-6 (5), 6-1 victory over No. 19 Johanna Konta of Britain.
“A huge achievement for me,” said Strycova, who is playing in her 53rd major tournament.
The other semifinal Thursday will be No. 7 Simona Halep of Romania against No. 8 Elina Svitolina of Ukraine.
After edging Riske in singles, Williams cooled down by riding a stationary bike while holding her nearly 2-year-old daughter, Olympia, in one arm. Then Williams joined Andy Murray to win their second-round match in mixed doubles 7-5, 6-3 against Fabrice Martin and Raquel Atawo.
Halep, a former No. 1 who won the 2018 French Open, followed up her elimination of 15-year-old sensation Coco Gauff by defeating Zhang Shuai of China 7-6 (4), 6-1 to get to her second semifinal at Wimbledon. Svitolina will make her debut in that round at any major tournament after beating Karolina Muchova of the Czech Republic 7-5, 6-4.
Williams rolled her right ankle and her movement was hardly ideal. Late in the second set, she was visited by a trainer, who applied extra tape to the ankle. That was during a stretch when Riske, talking to herself between points, claimed four games in a row to take the second set and lead the third by a break at 1-0.
“I thought,” Riske said, “I was very close.”
Not close enough. Williams was not going to go quietly. She held at love to lead 4-3, and then came the key game. Riske saved three break points and was a point from 4-all after claiming a point when Williams slipped along the well-worn baseline.
First, Williams got back to deuce by using a drop shot to set up a volley winner. She then earned yet another break point on a thrilling 10-stroke exchange, using a drop shot to bring Riske forward and delivering a volley winner. Williams lifted both arms and jutted her jaw. In the stands, her husband leaped from his seat, pointed his index fingers at her and screamed.
On the next point, Riske double-faulted, handing over the last break Williams needed.
“This is the first time since (January) that I actually felt, like, good,” she said at her news conference, while Olympia was held by Williams’ agent at the back of the room. “It’s been a really, really long year for me already, and hard year.”
Howard Fendrich is an Associated Press writer.