Wimbledon semis: Serena rounding into form

Published by Matt Trollope

(L-R) Wimbledon women's semifinalists Simona Halep Elina Svitolina, Serena Williams and Barbora Strycova (Getty Images)
Barbora Strycova will try to overcome a 0-3 record against Serena Williams on Thursday, while Simona Halep and Elina Svitolina will clash in the other Wimbledon women’s semifinal.

With the tournament now reduced to four competitors, the Wimbledon women’s singles event appears to be Serena Williams’ to lose.

The American, with 23 Grand Slam singles titles to her name, is joined in the semifinals by three players with a collective major tally of one.

The other major winner is Simona Halep, who will clash with Elina Svitolina in a battle between players who have never before appeared in a Wimbledon final.

Williams takes on Czech veteran Barbora Strycova for a place in her 11th.

Serena has improved with every match, and coach Patrick Mouratoglou believes her come-from-behind victory over Kaja Juvan in the second round was the moment she truly sunk her teeth into the tournament.

“She started really slow in terms of level of play; she was looking for her tennis. And I think that second-round match was a key moment,” he told reporters at Wimbledon on Wednesday.

“She dug deep (after losing the first set) and the next two sets were so much better. I felt she found her game there and then I was happy with the matches after this one.

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“In the last match you could see she’s been able to raise her level when it was necessary, which is one of her trademarks, and this is back. So everything’s positive.”

Indeed, Williams was stretched to the limit by a grass-court giant killer Alison Riske, a Centre Court barnstormer that has so far been the match of the women’s tournament.

But she wrested control of the third set, slamming an ace at 195km/h down the T on match point to prevail.

One would imagine Serena will have too many weapons on Thursday for the diminutive Strycova, the 33-year-old who is appearing in her first ever major semifinal.

Yet the canny Czech has demonstrated her grass-court smarts in successive comeback victories; first from 6-4 5-2 down against Elise Mertens in the last 16, and from 4-1 in the first set of her quarterfinal against Johanna Konta.

“It’s the tournament where everything clicked together. She’s calmer than ever and playing better than ever,” said Lukas Dlouhy, who shares Strycova coaching duties with fellow Czech David Kotyza.

Strycova faces a Herculean assignment in taking on Williams, a player who she is yet to beat in three previous meetings.

Yet Dlouhy, who says he “never saw a player so talented like Barbora”, believes his crafty charge can hopefully find some holes in Williams’ rock-solid game.

“It’s different (now than in those previous matches) because she was younger, it was different type of game. And now she’s at the top of her game,” Dlouhy said.

“Serena has won everything, but she has the days where you can beat her. You cannot say (she has) weaknesses in her game because she’s the greatest player, but we try to find some spots what we can do, and with David and the whole team, we can hopefully find some.”

Mouratoglou, somewhat ominously, says Williams is for the first time in months pain free, and also in a good place mentally.

“She needed time in competition, and with both singles and mixed doubles, she’s been able to spend quite a lot of hours on the tennis court playing matches and that’s what she needed,” he said.

“Serve and return are two of her bigger assets, and on grass, when you’re very good on those two things, you have a big advantage.”

Halep-Svitolina evenly poised

On paper at least, the semifinal between Halep and Svitolina is the more closely matched.

Both have dropped just one set this tournament, although Svitolina appeared destined for the exit in the second round when she trailed Margarita Gasparyan by a set and 3-1 – only for the Russian to retire later in the second set with phyiscal problems.

Seventh seed Halep is a French Open champion and has been to the semifinals of Wimbledon before, while eighth seed Svitolina is a major semifinal debutant.

However, it’s Svitolina who leads the head-to-head series 4-3.

The Ukrainian’s coach, Andrew Bettles, expressed similar sentiments to Mouratoglou about how his player was positioned entering Thursday’s semifinals.

Svitolina, like Williams, has only recently shaken the lingering effects of a knee injury.

“The week before, or a few days before Wimbledon, she kind of found her level again, and we kind of noticed that and all the way through she’s been battling hard and been mentally really strong,” he said.

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“It’s always been a good match-up (against Halep). I think the key is to just be aggressive, try and take control of the baseline, come to the net, see if she can dictate the points.

“You don’t need to change that much (on grass). I think there’s a few adjustments that you need to do. The grass is playing pretty slow and it’s just about being maybe slightly more aggressive.”

Bettles believes the experience of scraping through in the second round against Gasparyan had perhaps freed Svitolina up as she progressed through the draw.

“She didn’t save a match point but if someone does, you have that feeling that they’re playing with kind of house money,” he said.

“Maybe she’s had that feeling. In big moments she hasn’t felt pressure so much.”

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