Performance of lifetime ends in tears for Heather Watson
What a contest. What a performance. What a shame. Heather Watson played the greatest match of her life here last night only to suffer the same fate as countless players before her as Serena Williams dug deep to win a thrilling third-round contest on Centre Court.
The British No 1 served for the match at 5-4 in the final set before Williams recovered to win 6-2, 4-6, 7-5.
Williams, the perennial favourite to win every tournament she enters, had looked in control of her first meeting with Watson when she took the first set, only to find herself outplayed and outrallied as the 23-year-old from Guernsey refused to be daunted by her task.
Williams, however, recovered from 0-3 down in the final set to lead 4-3 and then held firm when the Briton served for the match.
Some of Williams' crunching returns of serve almost knocked Watson off her feet, but the world No 59 is one of the game's best athletes. She repeatedly kept the rallies alive by digging out shots which would have been winners against most. On paper it was a serious mismatch: the world No 1, a winner of 21 Grand Slam titles and $60.7m (about £44.8m) in prize money, against Watson, who has won just two minor titles and has career earnings of $1.5m (about £960,000).
Nevertheless Watson was soon made to appreciate the size of her task as Williams found her rhythm immediately. The American hit an ace on the second point and struck two more unreturned serves in winning the opening game to 15.
However, Watson made it clear that she was not going to be intimidated. An ace on the third point of her opening service game drew one of the biggest cheers of the afternoon and the Briton went on to level at 1-1 in confident fashion. Williams, nevertheless, broke serve two games later and again when Watson served to stay in the set at 5-2.
The first set had gone quickly, in just 25 minutes, but there had plenty of reasons for Watson to feel optimistic. By the fifth game of the second set it was clear that this was becoming a real contest. The Centre Court crowd reacted with a huge roar when Watson took the second set but there were no great celebrations from the Briton, who went back to her chair determined to keep hold of her emotions and remain focused on her task.
What followed was even more extraordinary as Watson made two successive breaks of serve to go 3-0 up in the deciding set. Williams, nevertheless, is one of the game's great fighters and she won a marathon fourth game.
When Williams went 4-3 up it seemed that Watson's resistance might crumble, but the Briton held on to her serve and then, remarkably, broke to love. Watson served for the match at 5-4 and although she recovered to deuce from 15-40 down, Williams was not to be denied. On the American's fourth break point Watson put a backhand in the net.
Two games later, serving at 30-15, Watson missed what should have been an easy backhand and from that moment onwards her back was against the wall. Two match points were saved when Williams put returns in the net but on the third Watson was unable to return a crunching Williams return to the baseline. When Watson left the court, never was a standing ovation for a loser more richly deserved.
Williams will next face her sister Venus, who beat Serbia's Aleksandra Krunic 6-3 6-2. It will be their fifth meeting at Wimbledon, but their first since Serena beat her sister in the 2009 final.