WIMBLEDON, England - To beat the best you have to play your best or, at times, better than your best. No one knows that as well as Serena Williams. The 23-time major champion isn't wrong when she says players consistently elevate their games when they stand across the net from greatness.?
"Every single match I play, whether I'm coming back from a baby or surgery, it doesn't matter, these young ladies, they bring a game that I've never seen before," Serena said after playing her best match of the tournament so far to fend off a fantastic challenge from Kristina Mladenovic, winning 7-5, 7-6(3) to advance to the Round of 16 and extend her winning streak at the All England Club to 17 consecutive matches. "It's interesting because I don't even scout as much because when I watch them play, it's a totally different game than when they play me.?
"That's what makes me great: I always play everyone at their greatest, so I have to be greater."
Mladenovic had Serena on the ropes early, playing near-flawless tennis to earn a chance to serve out the first set at 5-4. Mladenovic was in the midst of playing the best set of tennis she's played all season. She had played nine games without hitting a single unforced error and striking more winners than the 7-time Wimbledon champion.?
And then Serena did what we have seen her do time and time again: she elevated. She leveled up simply because she had to. And because she's Serena, she did.?
"I mean, it just gives even more props to her, honestly," Keys said. "It's definitely been a challenge that I have had to deal with where all of a sudden I'm the one that's supposed to win and people are playing with nothing to lose and playing their best tennis.
"A lot of times you just have to weather the storm and play better on those big points, and the fact she's basically done that her whole career is really impressive."
Told that Keys said 'it must suck every match' to be Serena and have to play everyone at their best, Serena didn't disagree. "I'm glad someone admitted that," Serena said. "Of course, Madison does. She's just so smart and so on it."
"But I like it because it kind of backfires because everyone comes out and they play me so hard. Now my level is so much higher because of it, from years and years of being played like that.
"So it's, like, you know what, my level, if it wasn't high, I wouldn't be who I am. So I had to raise my level to unknown because they're playing me at a level that's unknown. So now I'm used to it."
"These women are proud. They don't go out there and say, I'm going to lose because I'm playing Serena. They go out there and say, I'm going to play hard because I'm playing Serena.
"That's what makes these ladies so strong. It's admirable because they don't think, I have to lose. They think, I have a chance. That's what they do."
Keys, who admitted she let the prospect of getting to play Serena in the Round of 16 distract her in her third round match to Evgeniya Rodina
"I mean, it just gives even more props to her, honestly. It's definitely been a challenge that I have had to deal with where all of a sudden I'm the one that's supposed to win and people are playing with nothing to lose and playing their best tennis.
A lot of times you just have to weather the storm and play better on those big points, and, I mean, the fact she's basically done that her whole career is really impressive.
"I think a lot of the top players are losing, but they're losing to girls that are playing outstanding. I think, if anything, it shows me every moment that I can't underestimate any of these ladies. They are just going out there swinging and playing for broke."
Karolina Pliskova, Julia Goerges, Kiki Bertens, Donna Vekic, and Evgeniya Rodina, are all into the Round of 16 a Wimbledon for the first time in their careers, with Vekic and Rodina earning their second week spot for the first time at any Slam.?
"I like more, for sure, Wimbledon now," Pliskova said with a laugh. "But still all the matches are pretty tough here. I don't want to lose concentration because I won two matches and because I'm in the third round. For me it's still I'm in the tournament, that's all that matters.
"I want to win more matches because I know the draw is open and there is a big chance for me. I just don't want to think about in the past I didn't play well here, now I'm in the fourth round, second week of Wimbledon. There's also many things going through my mind. All that matters is I want to win my next round. That's what I'm going to try to do."
The stakes are high for Goerges when she faces Vekic on Monday. The German is on of, if not the best veteran player who has yet to make the quarterfinals of a Slam. She came into this year's Wimbledon having lost in the first round in her last five appearances at the All England Club, and she says the key to this year's breakthrough run was accepting that there are no style points on the unpredictable natural surface that is grass.?
"[The key this year is] accepting the circumstances you have on that court, because some balls you cannot make, and I think I have accepted it in all matches I have played," Goerges said. "It was not always beautiful, but you don't get extra points for that. It's just extra points when you advance to the next round. So I think that's a different mindset I'm having on the grass than probably the last five, six years."
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"Yesterday [my coach] asked me already, How do you feel going into this match? Is it the same as two years ago when you were in the third round?
"I was like, No, I feel different now. I feel more like that I belong here. It's not that I played great this tournament, but it was steady and I won both matches quite easy.
"I was more really hungry to go on court and play for it, play for the fourth round. I think two years ago I was more happy to be in the third round, just trying to play a good match, trying to not lose 6-Love, 6-Love. That was it. I think mentally it was a big change, yeah."