McHale scare awakens warrior spirit in Serena Williams

On Friday, Serena Williams would happily have boiled Christina McHale in oil '“ the low-ranked American was giving the champion the run around and was almost beating her. By yesterday, Williams had relented: McHale had been Williams's saviour.

Serena Williams was in devastating form in her third round victory over Germanys Annika Beck. Picture: PA
Serena Williams was in devastating form in her third round victory over Germanys Annika Beck. Picture: PA

After the close shave in the previous round, the world No 1 strode on to Centre Court yesterday with her mind calm and focused and her serving arm ready to do some damage. And sure enough, she pulverised poor Annika Beck 6-3, 6-0 to reach the second week and dig in for another tilt at another title.

“I think the McHale match really helped me,” Williams said after Beck had been dispatched. “To be honest, I felt like losing that first set so tight and her playing better than she’s ever played in her life really helped me to realise that I can play better and I can lift my game to compete with people when they’re frankly treeing.”

“Treeing” means playing above your level and leathering the ball no matter what the situation and what the outcome. It was not the most respectful analysis of McHale’s inspired performance but even the defending champion had to admit that it had been a wake-up call. It brought the champion out of Williams and when she is in that frame of mind, she becomes all but impossible to beat.

“I felt like I was definitely in warrior mode,” she said. “I was out there playing for my life at that point, trying to play to stay in the tournament.”

She had no need to be quite so intimidating against Beck as the German, ranked No 43 in the world, had little with which to hurt her. Beck is fast, she is a game scrapper but she has no killer shot.

Sure enough, she broke Williams’s serve in the third game but that was as much to do with Williams spraying the ball far and wide as it was to do with Beck’s returns.

And from that break of serve, Beck was a marked woman. She was only allowed to win one more game as Williams warmed up her serve and pounded her rival into the dirt. Beck won 22 points in the first set of which 14 were unforced errors from Williams. When the champion cut her error count down to zero in the second set, Beck could only scratch together four more points.

Now, though, Williams’s warrior mode will be tested to the full.

Today she faces Svetlana Kuznetsova who may not be the world’s greatest grass court player – her best results here are three quarter-final finishes in the Noughties – but she is an experienced campaigner. And she beat Williams in Miami earlier this year. Kuznetsova hauled herself back from the brink of defeat to beat Sloane Stephens yesterday 6-7, 6-2, 8-6. “I have difficult friendship with the grass,” the Russian said. “This year and every year I try to convince myself that I can do well.

“I see opportunities. But last year I didn’t take them. This year it went better.”

Whether it will be enough to beat Williams remains to be seen but Warrior Williams knows that Kuznetsova will not go quietly; she will fight until the very last point.

“Svetlana, she knows my game, I know her game.” Williams said. “Then it’s just really down to who’s really going to fight to win it.”

Christina McHale clearly has a lot to answer for.