For the third time in a year, Serena Williams is one match away from equalling Margaret Court. That long elusive record that would take her Grand Slam titles tally at 24. Something she may have achieved earlier but for time away from court as she became a mother. The comeback has been turbulent. The comeback has seen highs of forays into Wimbledon and US Open finals last year. And it has seen lows of defeats at Wimbledon, US Open finals last year followed by knee injury concerns. If the defeat at Wimbledon, to Angelique Kerber, was gracious and even emotional. The defeat at US Open, to Naomi Osaka, was ugly and unlike Serena. But, all that's in the past. And yet, could play a big role when she steps up on the Centre Court alongside Simona Halep.
The difference in approach by the legendary American and quite easily the G.O.A.T. (Greatest of All Time, if you're not big on internet-born abbreviations) was evident in her win over Barbora Strycova. In the 59 minute whooping of the Czech player, there were no loud bursts of 'C'mon', there were very few grunts and at the end of it all, she even joked with a spectator as she walked back to the locker room. Was it a reminder to the year gone by where she came close to the record equalling feat by a match and saw it all fall apart? The aspect that it is not over until you've played the final point and can afford to raise your arms in the air followed by a little run across to hug and kiss your family and friends.
"Yeah, I had to get to those finals, looking back, to even be in those two finals last year was unbelievable," she said after the win over Strycova while referring to the finals last year. "Now I'm in a different place. Like I just am more calm."
"Instead of having nothing to lose, I feel like I have things to lose, but I also have nothing to lose. It's like I'm in the middle. I’m in a different place because I wasn’t really playing a month ago, at all. So it’s all kind of coming together. I’m not getting over-pumped, but at the same time not getting under-wound. I have to be in that right space."
For Serena, who has played mixed doubles alongside home hero Andy Murray this past fortnight, there have been few nervous moments with sets dropped against Kaja Juvan and Alison Riske. She came from a set down against Juvan and had to dig deep to down fellow American Riske.
The 37-year-old is back to her usual best with big booming serves when needed, moving significantly better than last year or even at Roland Garros. Even against Strycova and her tricky sliced shots which stay low, Serena was able to get down and get the ball back on a consistent basis.
In her path stands Halep. The Romanian is not new to the pressure of Grand Slam finals having reached four finals in her career including a win at Roland Garros last year. Her best result at Wimbledon, however, was the semis in 2014 where she lost to Eugenie Bouchard.
"It's always a big challenge to play on grass court. I cannot play my best tennis here, but I hope to improve more for the next years, to have a better result in the future," said Halep last year at Wimbledon. "...have just to be very low. I have to stay closer to the court because the ball is coming fast. The grass is very different. It's very special," she went on to add.
Compare that to this year where she said, "I have a lot of experience now, I'm more confident, I love grass — it's the first time when I say that. I think it's a big challenge for me the next match, but I will take it like I took every match since I'm here. I'm relaxed, I'm happy and I'm motivated to win." And in her next match, against Elina Svitolina, Halep exchanged long rallies with the Ukranian in the first two games that spanned 20 minutes. Thereafter, it was all plain sailing.
Halep has dropped just one set over the course of the fortnight (Mihaela Buzărnescu) and on paper it would seem she has had simple passage to the final. But she's faced stiff challenge from Aliaksandra Sasnovich, former World No 1 Victoria Azarenka, teenage star Coco Gauff followed by tricky challenges of Shuai Zhang and Svitolina.
Record wise, it is a match for Serena to lose. She has a 9-1 head-to-head record against Halep with their only other meeting on grass coming at 2011 Wimbledon when Serena needed a three setter to progress to the third round. The only time Halep has beaten Serena was back in 2014 at the year-ending WTA Finals and in some dominant fashion: 6-0, 6-2. But Serena has won all six of their meetings since, including two at grand slams.
“I think the biggest key with our matches is the loss that I had (in Singapore),” Serena said when she was asked about facing Halep. “I never forgot it. She played unbelievable. That makes me know that level she played at, she can get there again. So I have to be better than that.”
The passage of play and of the match as a whole could be decided by the first two shots in a rally. Halep has the capacity to prolong points and rallies with incredible defence. But that defence can count for nought when it is against Serena's powerful groundstrokes, especially the forehand which has finally found its depth once again.
It would be important for Simona to do well on her first serve percentage and keep the door closed on Serena. If it doesn't work, Halep's second serve could be there for the taking. Svitolina didn't make the most of that opportunity but it's unlikely that Serena will let those chances get away.
On the other side, Serena got her first serve to land in 61 percent of the times against Strycova and would need that number to stay in the same region or improve against Halep who is also potent when it comes to going on the attack.
The Duchess of Cambridge, Patron of the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, and The Duchess of Sussex will attend the Ladies' Singles Final at The Championships, Wimbledon on Saturday 13th July. #Wimbledon pic.twitter.com/8N8qa36nM6
— Kensington Palace (@KensingtonRoyal) July 12, 2019
Aside from the one-on-one clash on court, both women have a member of the royal family rooting for them — Williams's friend Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, and Halep favouring Kate, Duchess of Cambridge. Royal match up!
Updated Date: Jul 13, 2019 10:01:58 IST