How do you know you’ve got Serena Williams in trouble? It’s not the occasional WTF unforced error from a strong position or the visceral scream after winning a long rally; both of those things are common even in her routine wins. It’s when Serena looks like she doesn’t know what’s going wrong, when she seems on the verge of tears after every lost point, that you know you’ve truly got her on the ropes.
She wore that look for much of the first two sets in her second-round match against 17-year-old Caty McNally on Thursday. Just two days after putting on a fearsome hitting display against old punching bag Maria Sharapova, Serena didn’t seem to have any answers to her teenage opponent’s bag of tricks.
How often has Serena lost to a teenager on the big stage? It’s tough to recall too many instances other than the 2004 Wimbledon final against Sharapova herself. And Sharapova has been paying the price for that ever since.
But at this stage of Serena’s career, going in without much experience has its uses. When McNally took the court against her legendary countrywoman, she didn’t have the weight of unfortunate history that Sharapova always carries with her. She didn’t know what it meant to face Serena’s wrath, which is equivalent to being battered by a box of dumbbells (on a good day). She had no idea just how difficult it is to subdue the mental powerhouse that the 37-year-old is when she is focused on the job.
And so she played…like a natural. Showing off a style that was both refreshing and classical, McNally confounded and frustrated Serena for the better part of an hour. Until the middle of the second set, the possibility of an upset loomed very large; that’s as big an achievement as any for a teenager making just her second Grand Slam main draw appearance.
“When I went out there, I just worried about myself,” McNally said later. “I didn’t think who was on the other side of the net as much. But obviously I knew I was playing against the greatest of all time. I knew that I had to bring a certain level.”
There hasn’t been a lot of hype around McNally, presumably because the other members of her age group (Amanda Anisimova and Iga Swiatek) and some even younger (Coco Gauff) have already made deep runs at Slams. But McNally was a successful junior player in her own right. She won two junior doubles Slams (with Swiatek as her partner at Roland Garros and Gauff for the company at the US Open), and also reached the 2018 Roland Garros junior singles final where she lost to – surprise, surprise – Gauff.
None of that could have prepared her for a night match at the biggest tennis stadium in the world against the greatest tennis player of all time. What did prepare her though, was a varied game that Serena – and most others – had seen very little of. McNally managed to put Serena under pressure not by overpowering her or outlasting her, but by doing a bit of everything.
She served big, volleyed exceptionally and used the backhand slice so well that Serena looked ready to angrily send the ball into orbit every time she had to bend low to dig one out. McNally’s game reminded me a little of Ashleigh Barty’s, who had won her second-round match on Louis Armstrong just minutes earlier. The American lacks Barty’s point-ending power on the forehand, but her court sense and serving instincts are certainly comparable.
Those serving instincts didn’t hold up too well in yesterday’s match though. McNally kept going for big second serves, and in the early going that paid off well. But at 2-3 in the second set, she made one double fault too many…and just like that, the spell was broken.
In most Serena comebacks, you can almost feel the energy vibrating off her body as she summons all her powers to stave off defeat. But in this case, she was handed a gift before she had to go into full desperation mode. Once she had a 4-2 lead in the second set, she visibly relaxed and started putting the hammer down with her serve. And there’s not much any player can do when that happens, even if they are outplaying her off the ground.
McNally still had a few aces up her sleeve – quite literally – that impressed every single person watching. She faced three set points while serving at 2-5, and saved two of them with inch-perfect aces. She also hit a down-the-line backhand slice winner that came straight out of the Roger Federer playbook and had the commentators in raptures.
But the hold, as gutsy as it was, didn’t make much of a difference in the overall scheme of things. In the very next game Serena coolly served out the set, and in the process changed the complexion of the match completely.
The third set wasn’t too competitive, as a slump-shouldered McNally started making errors (especially off the forehand) thick and fast. Serena knew the danger had passed, and allowed her young opponent just one more game. She still struggled to read McNally’s serve, but the double faults from McNally kept coming (she made 10 of them in total). Moreover, Serena was barely troubled on her own serve towards the end, which meant McNally was always a step behind.
The final scoreline suggests that it was merely a matter of Serena getting used to a game she had never faced before. But anyone who watched the match from start to finish will tell you otherwise. If McNally hadn’t made those costly double faults in the second set, she might have been able to make an already frustrated Serena even more rattled.
At the end of the day, that’s what separates the seasoned legends from the raw upstarts. McNally made the double faults, Serena didn’t; McNally failed to keep her forehand in the court throughout the third set, Serena didn’t. But is that really such a bad thing?
“For me, it just shows that I’m capable of playing with the best,” McNally said after the match. “I got a set off Serena Williams. Had her close in the second set too. Had some chances. For me, it just gives me a lot of confidence, shows me that I can compete out on the biggest stages.”
Serena is into the third round of the US Open, as she rightfully should be; she was clearly the better player on the day. But everyone in attendance at Ashe as well as the millions around the world watching on TV will always remember the way she was made to sweat and struggle for a set and a half, by a player less than half her age.
Updated Date: Aug 29, 2019 14:30:20 IST