For Serena, aura takes the place of a serve

© Susan Mullane-USA TODAY Sports

Art Spander

WIMBLEDON, England — Call it aura. Or presence. Or maybe the "it" factor, the mysterious intangible that is so much a part of a champion. The athlete knows what is possible, really what is probable. So does the opponent.

Just get Tom Brady the ball. Or at an earlier age, just get Tiger Woods on the course. Or as was shown once more Tuesday afternoon, just get Serena Williams on the court.

The Wimbledon quarterfinals, where she had been so many times. Against Alison Riske, who never had been there before, never been that far in a Grand Slam tournament, never even had played Serena in any event.

Williams was a winner as expected, if not exactly in the manner we expected, having her serve broken five times in five attempts, and according to the stats making 27 unforced errors, compared to Riske’s 18. Yes, Riske had her chances. But Serena had a 6-4, 4-6, 6-3 victory and a place in the semis against Barbora Strycova.

Riske did well in the grass-court preludes to Wimbledon, at 27 after a decent but not distinguished career finding her niche. She also did well against Williams, relatively speaking.

“I think no matter any time Serena walks on court, you’re going to feel something special,” said Riske. “She’s something our sport has never seen before. I definitely feel it, but the same time I was not overwhelmed today. I felt in the moment. It was an honor to play against her.”

An honor, but at the same time an obstacle. Riske, from Pittsburgh, daughter of a secret service agent, was aware of what Serena Williams had accomplished, taking 23 Slams — including seven Wimbledons — one fewer than Margaret Court’s all-time record.

Riske then was battling Serena’s reputation, the mentally tough competitor who can blow a ball back for a point or, on occasion, blow her stack, such as in the final of the 2018 U.S. Open.

Serena the lady, the mother, is no less Serena the battler or, as someone mentioned, the warrior.

“Obviously, Serena has so many amazing qualities, but I think that’s No. 1,” Riske said of Williams’ refusal to concede, even on her rare bad days. That’s what sets her apart from everyone else in the world.”

An exaggeration, certainly, but Riske can be excused.

“That’s what set her apart for many years since she began. I think at 1-0, when I broke her at the beginning of the third, I immediately knew in the next game, I could sense she started grunting louder. She started having a lot more punch behind the ball.

“She’s always out there to take it to the opponents and have no mercy. She’s willing to do whatever it takes to win.”

Or as Williams said, “She wasn’t giving it to me, so I had to step up and take it.”

Williams insisted that this the first time she’s felt completely fit since the Australian Open, at the end of January. Her training was behind schedule, and when you’re 37 and raising a child any lost practice time is precious.

“It’s been a really, really long year for me, already, and a hard year, because I’m not typically injured,” said Williams.

The little bruises become big, and the bigger bruises — she’s had a sore knee — seem to last forever.

“I don’t know where I am,” she said, meaning in terms of preparation. She does know that she’s one match from reaching the final for a fourth straight time she’s been in Wimbledon, sitting out 2017 because of the birth of her daughter, Alexis. Williams won in 2015 and 2016.

“I just needed to fight,” said Williams on how she beat Riske. “Alison played great the whole tournament. She had beaten so many amazing players, players that had great years.”

Serena’s year hasn’t been great, but it’s not over.

“I definitely feel a lot more pressure as I get older,” said Williams. “Now that I’m past older I feel a little less pressure ... It’s like I’ve done everything I need to do, like I’ve had a great career, so I don’t feel the pressure as much anymore.”

The people she plays still feel it.