After the end of the opening set, someone from the stunned Centre Court called out, “Wake up, Serena.”
It was just 26 minutes on the clock and Williams was down 2-6 against Simona Halep. The adoring crowd wanted to see a contest as much as they wanted to see a coronation. The American was on the threshold of history, one win away from equaling Margaret Court’s record of 24 for the most number of singles Grand Slams won by any tennis player.
But rather than stepping up, Williams lost her footing on the perfectly manicured Wimbledon lawns. In her heaviest defeat at a Grand Slam final, the 37-year-old Williams was blown away 6-2, 6-2 by Halep in 56 minutes.
“Any loss for me is not easy,” the American said. “But when someone plays lights out tennis, there's not much you can do.”
As blindingly brilliant as Halep was, part of the reason was also that Williams let her be. The American, known as the ultimate competitor in women’s tennis, was just not up to competing on the day.
The 5’6 Romanian had started out as the underdog in every sense: she was playing her first Wimbledon finals, had a 1-9 win-loss record against Williams, had one Grand Slam title to Williams’ 23 and before Wimbledon she most associated grass with “picnics.”
And yet Halep was beating Williams, a seven-time champion on the lawns at SW19, soundly. Donning a flowy white tennis dress, Halep was gliding on the court, getting to almost every ball Williams aimed at her side of the court and giving the American little pace to work with. Constantly wrong-footed and unsettled, unforced errors (26 in total) leaked out of the Williams’ racquet. At the presentation ceremony, Williams, who accepted the runners up dish for the second year in a row, admitted that she had been somewhat of a “deer caught in the headlights,” in Saturday’s final.
“I don’t feel there was too much tension,” Williams said after the match. “I was overhitting it and trying to go for too much because she was getting a tremendous amount of balls back. I just was trying different things. Today nothing really helped, but I also made way too many errors for a lot of stuff to work.”
It is not often that a 23-time champion is made to defend their position. But everything changes when you are Serena Williams.
Longevity is just one part of the wonder in Williams’ story. The fact is she has found her way back in the game after giving birth and surviving through multiple surgeries following childbirth. Despite not hitting her peak, Williams has reached three Grand Slam finals in the last six majors she has competed in. She has breezed past opponents and fought her way out of situations with characteristic grit. In short, Williams has done everything but win a Slam.
The American, after losing to Halep on Saturday, she had stopped worrying about records since winning her 18th major. But it is possible that even Williams is weighed down by expectations and history.
There was a similar stutter when the American was on a quest to equal Steffi Graf’s Open Era record of 22 singles majors. Having completed the second ‘Serena Slam’ (2014 US Open, 2015 Australian Open, 2015 French Open and 2015 Wimbledon), Williams looked set to level with Graf. But she lost in the semi-final of the US Open that year to Italian journeywoman Roberta Vinci, the final of the 2016 Australian Open to Angelique Kerber and the final of the 2016 French Open to Garbine Muguruza.
Kerber once again proved a hurdle in Williams’ march to history, as she beat the American in last year’s Wimbledon final. Much like Halep, the German, known more for her unshakable defence, was allowed to run the show and run away with the title. At the US Open final last year, 20-year-old Naomi Osaka, with ice in her veins, upstaged Williams with some aggressive, accurate tennis. In both those matches, the American won only six games. Against Halep, she managed only four.
“I have to figure out a way to win a final,” said Williams, whose last Grand Slam win came at the 2017 Australian open when she was eight weeks pregnant. “Maybe playing other finals outside of Grand Slams would be helpful to get me in the groove.”
Given her reduced schedule she plays nowadays, and her knee troubles this spring meant Williams did not have as much match practice. Before Wimbledon, she had played only thirteen matches this year, and pulled out of the Indian Wells Masters and Rome Masters due to injury. Wimbledon was her first grass-court tournament and Williams had to push past some tough competition to make it to the finals. Once there, though, the American looked flat, nervous even; usurped by the occasion.
“Serena Williams has to get herself even fitter because at that level she can be exposed,” the legendary John McEnroe said on commentary. “Especially if nerves come in to play.”
Since returning last year, Williams has struggled with her movement. Opponents know it’s a weakness, they know if they don’t give her enough time to get into position and pummel the ball, they have a shot. And yet Williams has managed to reach three Grand Slam finals. She knows the game; she may just need a little more time to re-learn how to win on the biggest stage.
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Updated Date: Jul 14, 2019 10:42:15 IST