Serena rallies — and now it’s mixed doubles with Andy

© Susan Mullane-USA TODAY Sports

Art Spander

WIMBLEDON, England — The defending champion, Angelique Kerber, had been beaten an hour earlier. And now Serena Williams was getting pummeled in the first set of her match by an 18-year-old qualifier. You wondered if this Wimbledon, having already lost Naomi Osaka and Venus Williams, was about to go off the rails.

But no, at 37 (and only weeks from 38), and having won 23 Grand Slam singles, seven of them at Wimbledon, Serena was going nowhere except the third round.

“Being behind does bring out the best in me,” said Williams, really without seeming arrogant. “I do like pressure. I play my best when I’m down sometimes.”

This very warm Thursday at the All-England Club — and on America's Independence Day — was another one of those times. Serena regained control and defeated Kaia Juvan of Slovenia, 2-6, 6-2, 6-4.

After a lot of shouting and screaming by fans on Court One, and several of those famously monstrous Serena serves — Juvan didn’t put a ball in play the final set — Williams was stopping by the stands to pose for pictures.

“She played well,” Williams said of Juvan, “and then I started a little slow. I hadn’t played too many matches.”

That will change. Williams has agreed to team up in mixed doubles with Andy Murray, the Scotsman who in 2013 became the first British man in 77 years to win Wimbledon, making waves and making history.

After two hip surgeries, the more recent last year, Murray is returning to tennis carefully, for now competing only in doubles. That turns out to an advantage for Serena, who of course had a baby two years ago and has been measured in her tournament play.

“I think Andy is a great player,” said Williams, a view reinforced by his three Grand Slam titles, two Wimbledons and an Australian Open.

“I think he is mentally one of the toughest players out there. I don’t even know what goes on in his mind. I know what goes on in mine, my mind. It’s always interesting to hear what other champions think — how you can apply that to your game. It’s only a win-win situation for me. Hopefully it will be for him as well.”

For sure, the idea has taken over the British media. Their main man, the one who finally won the title at the world’s oldest tennis tournament, their tournament, linking with an American who arguably is the finest female player ever.

“I’m looking forward to it,” said Serena. “I mean, it will help me out. Usually when I play doubles, it helps out my singles game. I really need it. I’m glad you guys suggested it.”

Did we really? One thing about Serena, she knows how to play to the press and TV guys, just as she knows how to play against virtually everyone.

As is the case with every aging star, there are always new kids to play and old shots to display.

“It made sense,” she said of teaming with Murray, “because I really could use some matches at this point. It made sense for him. We both want to do well. We both love Wimbledon.”

And although there were times earlier in her career when she appeared uninterested, getting involved in the entertainment business for a while, Williams insisted she also loves tennis.

“I absolutely would not be here if I didn’t love what I do,” she said. “I really work hard at what I do. It’s hard to do something for this long if you don’t have true love for it.”

The way she came on late against Juvan was vintage, a word she used, if in jest, to describe herself.

“I just have to remember that I’m best at closing matches,” said Williams. “I’m good at it.”

Very, very good.