For decades, Ali – that would be Muhammad Ali – floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee. And at this Wimbledon (unless you were preoccupied with some teen phenom named Coco) you may have noticed that there was another Ali who did pretty good.
The beaming, chuckling Alison (aka Ali) Riske has been living the dream. Going into her quarterfinal match today, the 29-year-old was 14-1 on grass this year. Plus, after a lengthy engagement to Stephen Amritraj, she’ll be getting married in 11 days.
Ali’s dad was in the US Secret Service, and Riske’s service to tennis has sort of been a secret – well, until this week. Sure, Ali is not the most graceful player on the circuit. Power, not flowing ease, is her thing. Her strokes have hitches, often she’ll lunge, she can be loud. “Was Ali’s service motion created by a committee?” asked one reporter. Still, there’s an intrinsic appeal to the Pittsburgh native, and we love the little details of her backstory. Her dad helped protect Presidents Reagan, Bush Sr. and Clinton. For years Ali carried around a fragment of her baby blanket and she was once called for delay of game before her match began.
That was the past. Here at Wimbledon, Ali reached her first Grand Slam quarterfinal ever. She used her many talents – fast, flat groundies, big serve and her uncommon delight in charging the net to take down this season’s darling, No. 1 Ash Barty, on Court 2.
Now all Ali would have to do is take down a player many say is the No. 1 player of all time, Ms. Serena, on Centre Court. In a battle of slow starters, Riske for once broke out in front and established a 4-3 lead. “Serena,” claimed Radio Wimbledon, “is heavy-legged, and she’s feeling the pressure.”
Was it that pressure that sparked one of Serena’s take-no-prisoners counter-attacks? Williams jabbed her way back, won three straight games and took the first set.
But no worries. Losing the first set has been Riske’s thing, and at 4-4 in the second, Ali showed off a wonderful return, an athletic half volley and a gentle fist pump. She forced a third set and became the first WTA player of the Open Era to go three sets in her first five matches. Now the three-set queen would have to down the Queen of Tennis.
The stats were hardly with Ali. Not only is Serena a seven-time Wimbledon winner, her record here in three-set matches was 17-4 – and Williams had a 41-10 Grand Slam record against her fellow Americans.
In the third set, Serena broke and went up 3-1, 40-15. But Riske broke back and evened the set at 3-3. During a frenetic scramble point, Serena guessed just right. Ali let it bother her and suffered a monumental fail, as she double-faulted for the fifth time.
Today, when the singular Serena duked it out with Ali (that would be Riske, not Muhammad) we saw why Williams is one of the greatest fighters in all of sports history. The 37-year-old punched her way past her reeling foe to score a 6-4, 4-6, 6-3 knockout.
Riske twice forgot the score today, but she hardly forgot who she was playing. When IT asked Ali to talk about Serena’s fighting spirit and warrior quality, she said, “Serena has so many amazing qualities, but I think that’s her number one. That’s what sets her apart from everyone else in the world…[and] for many years, since she began.
“At 1-0 [in the third set]…I immediately knew in that next game [she’d fight back.] She started grunting louder, she started having a lot more punch behind her ball.
“That’s something not a lot of people would be able to get out of themselves. Serena really made it happen. That just shows you she’s always out there to take it to her opponent and have no mercy. She’s willing to do whatever it takes to win.”
And so was that other Ali – Muhammed.
Also reporting – Lucia Hoffman