Wimbledon memories: Serena Williams’ brush with disaster underlined uneasy bond with Centre Court crowd

Serena Williams 2016 Wimbledon champion

The first Friday of 2015 Wimbledon Championships served up a Centre Court occasion that helped to shed a light on Serena Williams’ often uncomfortable relationship with everything that surrounds Wimbledon. 

British outsider Heather Watson had been handed the unenviable task of taking on the 20-time Grand Slam champion in an evening match that looked set to follow a familiar script as the dominant player in the history of the women’s game overpowered her more petite rival with a typically thumping performance in front of a resigned home crowd eager to cheer on their underdog.

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In a familiar scene, most of the seats on the Centre Court press box emptied as reporters made their way back to the press room to write up a polite obituary to the latest British hard luck story at Wimbledon, with newspaper deadlines pressing and the inevitability of what was to follow ensuring the need to watch any further live play was not pressing.

Yet the impossible tale that followed so nearly created one of the great Wimbledon stories of modern times, with the tide turning in unfathomable fashion at 3-3 in the second set as Guernsey-born Watson reeled off six straight games, to the delighted of an increasingly vocal crowd boosted by the presence of vocal tennis fans who had bought resale tickets from more gentle spectators who had left for evening tea after the one-sided first set.

It was as if Watson had won Wimbledon as she broke the fearsome Williams serve time and again, with the roars echoing out of Centre Court clearly agitating a champion who clearly felt she was not being afforded the respect she had earned after more than a decade as the game’s most decorated champion.

As Williams doubled faulted to hand Watson a double break lead at the start of the third set, what had previously felt like a fun 20 minutes of glory for Watson before her defeat was confirmed suddenly took on a whole new perspective. Remarkably, the world No 1 looked beaten, frustrated and ready to throw in the towel, with the roars that greeted her each and every missed shot adding to her agony.

There were some boos as Williams showed aggression towards the crowd, with Watson even serving for the match at 5-4 before Serena swept back to claim a 6-2, 4-6, 7-5 achieved in a memorable two hours and 15 minutes.

“I never saw a crowd like this,” said Williams. “They really wanted her to win. Heather has a tremendous fanbase here, apparently. I’ve never seen them this vocal, heard boos here. I’ve never had to play the crowd here like that. At the end of the day they were rooting for their champion to do well and you can’t blame them.”

Watson was two points away from beating the great Serena and had she finished off the job, the joyous scenes around Centre Court would have replicated the occasions when Andy Murray made history as he ended Britain’s long wait for a singles champion three years later.

Williams has been respected rather than loved by the Centre Court crowds down the years, with their eagerness to watch her in action inspired as much by a fascination with her legend as an affection that has rarely been in evidence since her first Wimbledon title in 2002.

With seven Wimbledon titles in her collection, Williams is probably unconcerned by the reality that a large chunk of the Centre Court crowds that have watched her over the last two decades would have been cheering on her opponent to cause an upset, with the eagerness for a new name on the Venus Rosewater Dish that is presented to the champion possibly driving that viewpoint.

A champion of Serena’s class may have deserved better, but her legacy as one of Wimbledon’s greatest champions may only be cherished when she is no longer a regular on the court that has witnessed so many of her greatest moment.

Follow Kevin Palmer on Twitter @RealKevinPalmer

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