WIMBLEDON, England — Third sets have been good to Alison Riske in the best Wimbledon of her career. But she had never played one against Serena Williams.
Riske pushed her much more celebrated opponent hard and into the corners on Centre Court on Tuesday, but Williams came up with the big serves and shots on the run that she needed to win a hotly contested, deeply entertaining quarterfinal, 6-4, 4-6, 6-3.
Williams, at age 37, is now within striking distance again of the Grand Slam title that has eluded her since she returned to the circuit in March 2018 after giving birth to her daughter.
After losing in the final at Wimbledon last year to Angelique Kerber, she is back in the semifinals at the All England Club and will face the winner of Tuesday’s second quarterfinal on Centre Court between Johanna Konta of Britain and Barbora Strycova of the Czech Republic.
Simona Halep, the highest remaining women’s seed at No. 7, reached the Wimbledon semifinals for the first time since 2014 by defeating Zhang Shuai, 7-6 (4), 6-1, on Tuesday.
Williams has won seven singles titles at Wimbledon and is one of the greatest grass-court players in history. But Riske, a 29-year-old unseeded American playing in her first Grand Slam quarterfinal, is quite comfortable on grass as well.
Her flat strokes and ability to take the ball very early off the bounce and push forward to the net helped her defeat four consecutive opponents in three sets at Wimbledon this year, including the No. 1 seed, Ashleigh Barty, in the fourth round on Monday.
But Riske could not quite continue her run against Williams despite converting all five of her break points in the match. Williams took control of the match at 3-3 in the final set, holding serve at love and then breaking Riske in a long, taut game in which Riske, playing boldly, saved three break points.
But Williams, the No. 11 seed, won an acrobatic rally to get another break point and converted when Riske hit a double fault. Williams then served out the victory, finishing with her 19th ace.
“I wouldn’t have won that match a couple of weeks ago,” Williams said, referring to her mediocre form at the French Open, where she was still hampered by knee pain. “Every match here has really helped me and really counted. I’m glad I was able to come through. She was honestly playing so great. She beat so many great players and was so close to the win today.”
Riske, soon to be married to Stephen Amritraj, a former Duke tennis player, has been playing some of the best tennis of her life in recent weeks, putting together a 14-1 record on grass.
“I wish I could get married more often,” Riske joked on Monday. “Maybe we’ll have to renew our vows because it’s worked out well having that on the horizon. I’m looking forward to it so much.”
She had played doubles with Williams but had never faced her across the net in an official match until Tuesday. But she quickly made it clear that she intended to pose a threat, breaking Williams in the third game of the match and then taking a 3-1 lead.
Though Williams regained command to take the opening set, Riske continued to fight and deploy her game plan effectively: bending low on the grass to cut off Williams’s shots inside the baseline and deprive her of reaction time.
She hit serves into Williams’s body to keep her from attacking returns, went for more than usual on her second serve and tried, as the match stretched on, to attack the net more frequently.
But with the outcome looking uncertain, Williams found a higher gear, as she has so often on Centre Court and on the game’s other great show courts.
“I just had to button up and play hard,” the 11th-seeded Williams said. “She was playing her heart out, and she had nothing to lose. And I realized I didn’t either.”
With her long hair occasionally obstructing her field of vision in the breeze, she opted for what she calls her “business bun” after holding serve at 3-3 in the final set.
“Put the business bun up and just get to business,” she said.
Breaking Riske’s serve in the next game was critical to closing the deal. Williams missed returns into the net after aggressive serves from Riske on the first two break points. Williams could not convert the third either as Riske pushed forward and Williams missed a lob.
On the next point, Williams slipped while hitting a shot in her backhand corner, scrambled to get back up, but ultimately stayed on the ground as Riske put away a winner.
It was advantage Riske, but the next three points changed that situation. Williams got to deuce with a good drop shot that led to a volley winner. She got another break point by improvising: throwing up a good defensive lob and then returning Riske’s overhead to keep the rally alive. She hit another forehand drop shot to bring Riske to net and then moved quickly to her right to punch away a forehand volley winner into the open court off Riske’s backhand passing shot.
Then came the double fault as Riske, varying her second serve placement because she wanted to keep Williams off balance, missed while trying to slice her second serve down the middle.
It was 5-3 Williams, and though Williams lost the first point of the game when she served for the match, she talked softly to herself and then reeled off the final four points of the quarterfinal, finding angles on the run that she has rarely found in this frustrating, injury-filled season.
“I haven’t had a great amount of time to prepare for this,” she said. “Like I said at the beginning of the tournament, each and every match has to count like five or 10 matches. I have not played a lot, and this is the first time since Australia I actually felt, like, good. So it’s been a really, really long year for me already, and a hard year.”
It has, however, been a happy Wimbledon so far, and she was soon heading off to play the second round of mixed doubles with Andy Murray.
Christopher Clarey has covered global sports for The Times and the International Herald Tribune for more than 25 years from bases in France, Spain and the United States. His specialties are tennis, soccer, the Olympic Games and sailing. @christophclarey
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