WIMBLEDON, England — Used to be that players would dread the prospect of facing Serena Williams, especially at Wimbledon.
Nowadays, they seem to be eager to go up against her — not because they think they can beat Williams, mind you, but because, well, she’s Serena Williams, and what better way to create a memory for life than to share a court with one of the, if not THE, greatest in the history of tennis.
So that’s why Giulia Gatto-Monticone, a 31-year-old qualifier from Italy making her debut at the All England Club, was thrilled when the draw put her up against Williams in the first round Tuesday, and the schedule put them on Centre Court, to boot. So what if Gatto-Monticone fell behind 5-0 in 17 minutes and wound up losing 6-2, 7-5?
“Incredibly happy to play her,” Gatto-Monticone said afterward. “Serena is Serena.”
The whole day was, she said, “a dream come true,” filled with smiles and tears and goose bumps. From the tour of the stadium that she, her coach, her physiotherapist and her physiotherapist’s son were given in the morning: “We went through the club members’ area. Just a spectacular place. Truly beautiful couches, flowers. We saw the trophies. We saw the entrance to the court,” Gatto-Monticone said.
To the match itself, which was briefly even in the second set at 5-all, prompting an Italian reporter to ask whether Gatto-Monticone wondered whether maybe she had a chance: “No,” came the reply, “I never thought that.”
To the handshake after the highlight-worthy 12-stroke exchange that capped the result, including a trade of volleys with both women at the net: “She told me I’m an amazing player. I don’t know if she really thought so, but she was so nice. I told her she’s the queen of this tournament. I thanked her.”
And then came this: Gatto-Monticone asked the 37-year-old Williams if they could pose for a selfie together.
“She was sweet, because I was panicking and I couldn’t find my phone,” Gatto-Monticone recounted. “She said, ‘That’s fine. Don’t worry. I’ll take it with mine and post it on Instagram.’ I said, ‘Perfect!’”
Consider, too, the attitude of the next woman standing in the way of Williams’ bid for an eighth Wimbledon championship and 24th Grand Slam singles trophy overall (which is aside from her hardware in women’s doubles and mixed doubles, an event she is entering this week with Andy Murray). That’s another qualifier, 18-year-old Kaja Juvan of Slovenia, who was born a little more than a year after Williams won the 1999 U.S. Open.
Juvan, like Gatto-Monticone, relishes the opportunity to meet Williams.
“I’m glad I got the chance to still play with her,” Juvan said, “because she’s done so much in her career.”
This is true, of course. The thing right now for Williams is that she hasn’t been able to do much this season, in part because of an injured left knee that was a big reason Tuesday’s match was only her 13th of 2019.
Two former Wimbledon winners who have struggled this season, Maria Sharapova and Garbine Muguruza, both lost, as did a pair of major champions elsewhere, Svetlana Kuznetsova and Sam Stosur. Sharapova, who recently returned to the tour after missing five months because of a right shoulder operation, quit while one game from defeat against Pauline Parmentier at 6-4, 7-6 (4), 5-0, blaming what she said was “a tendon in my left forearm flaring up.”
Defending champion Angelique Kerber, two-time Wimbledon winner Petra Kvitova and Ash Barty — playing her first match at No. 1 in the rankings — all won in straight sets.
The men’s bracket lost its third top-10 seed, though, when No. 5 Dominic Thiem, a two-time French Open runner-up, was eliminated by Sam Querrey of the United States.
Williams’ coach said over the weekend that the pain was gone from that knee in recent weeks and so they finally were able to prepare properly for a tournament. The lack of practice time and match play were reasons Williams pointed to after her third-round exit at the French Open.
If her knee is fine, that not only helps her cover the court, of course, but also allows her to get some extra oomph on her serve, which when at its best is the best in the game.
“I can actually use my legs now. It’s been a while,” said Williams, who pounded serves at up to 122 mph on Tuesday. “Mentally, if you’re serving without legs, you’re paranoid (about) hurting your shoulder, so you take a little pace off. … Now that I can actually use my legs, it just all feels better.”
To get to match point, Williams smacked a swinging forehand volley winner, then pumped both arms, leaned forward and screamed.
Asked about that vigorous celebration, Williams explained that she feels as if “every match counts like several matches” because she is trying to make up for lost time.
“That was just something that I was really excited about,” she said, before referring to herself in the third person: “It’s Serena, I always get excited.”
Sounds like something an opponent might say.