LONDON — Down a break in the final set and one point away from falling behind 3-0, Serena Williams refused to buckle on Centre Court.
Facing the prospect of her earliest ever loss at Wimbledon, the six-time champion summoned her big-match experience — as well as her big serve — to overcome Christina McHale 6-7 (7), 6-2, 6-4 on Friday to reach the third round on another day of rain delays at the All England Club.
“I know mentally no one can break me,” Williams said after the 2 and a half hour match. “I know that it takes a lot to break me mentally. And I knew [being down] a break in the third that I was going to have to put my mind in it — and that’s what I did.”
Her sister, five-time champion Venus, also faced a major scare, battling through several rain delays to make it into the fourth round by defeating 29th-seeded Daria Kasatkina of Russia 7-5, 4-6, 10-8 on No. 1 Court.
Two-time defending men’s champion Novak Djokovic, meanwhile, was trailing Sam Querrey 7-6 (6), 6-1 in a third-round match on No. 1 Court before play was suspended for the day on the outside courts because of rain. They’ll resume Saturday.
Earlier, Juan Martin del Potro advanced to the third round after a three-year absence from Wimbledon. The 2009 U.S. Open champion, who has undergone three surgeries on his left wrist since 2014, beat fourth-seeded Stan Wawrinka 3-6, 6-3, 7-6 (2), 6-3.
“My hands [are] shaking,” del Potro said after walking off Centre Court to a loud ovation. “It’s a great sensation for me because I’m playing tennis again and I feel alive.”
Wawrinka, a two-time Grand Slam champion, is the highest seeded man eliminated so far.
“It’s great for tennis to see him back,” the Swiss player said of del Potro. “He’s a great guy, a really good player, big champion.”
Serena Williams had never lost at Wimbledon before the third round, but she faced an uphill struggle for much of the day against the 65th-ranked McHale, a 24-year-old U.S. player who has never progressed past the third round at any major.
After losing the first set in a tiebreaker, which she had led 5-3, Williams walked to her courtside chair and smashed her racket on the turf five times, then tossed it behind her.
Williams regained control in the second set, dropping just two games, but then fell behind 2-0 in the third. McHale went up 40-15 on serve, with two chances to take a 3-0 lead.
But McHale double-faulted and Williams ran off 11 straight points. McHale then saved three break points to go ahead 3-2.
The next game featured a 26-shot, corner-to-corner rally that ended with a Williams forehand error. But McHale double-faulted on a game point and Williams attacked her second serves to break for 5-4.
Williams put on a display of pure power in the final game — serving out the match at love and finishing with three consecutive aces for a total of 14.
Venus’ match was delayed four times by rain, including once when she held a match point at 7-6 in the third set. When play resumed, Kasatkina saved the match point and held to 7-7.
Four games later, the eighth-seeded Williams broke to end the contest.
“This has got to be something out of a movie, this is what I thought,” said Venus, who has played more than six hours over two days, including doubles with her sister. “I’m not sure if I’ve ever played a 10-8 set, so that was pretty intense. You just think, hold serve. It’s easier said than done.”
Because of the rain, Wimbledon officials are considering the possibility of scheduling matches on the tournament’s middle Sunday, traditionally a day off. Only three times in Wimbledon’s 139-year history have matches been played on the middle Sunday: in 1991, 1997 and 2004.