The stage is set for an intriguing Wimbledon final when Serena Williams and Simona Halep step out onto Centre Court for their first meeting in a Grand Slam final.
On paper, everything points to a Williams victory, given the American owns Halep 9-1 in the head-to-head series as well as owning a vastly superior Wimbledon CV.
Yet Williams, appearing in her 11th Wimbledon final, is wary of the threat posed by Halep, who is for the first time playing on the final Saturday at the All England Club.
“There’s so many impressive things about her. I think obviously her tenacity. I think her ability to improve every time, just to keep improving. Her ability to find power. Can’t underestimate her. She’s like a little powerhouse,” Serena said.
And Halep, despite having beaten Williams just once in 10 meetings, is speaking confidently after stretching the 23-time major champ to three sets in their two most recent meetings – at Australian Open 2019 and the 2016 US Open.
“I played many matches against her. Many of them were very close,” said Halep, who has pushed Williams to three sets in three of their past five meetings.
“I have learned that I have the chance. Now, if I face her, I will believe that I have my chance to win against her. Of course, I respect a lot what she has done and what she’s doing. But now I feel stronger mentally facing her.
“We will see what is going to happen.”
Indeed we will.
Williams arrived in London having played just 12 matches in 2019.
She lost in the third round in Paris, did not play a lead-up tournament on grass, and, according to coach Patrick Mouratoglou, only felt completely physically healthy one week before Wimbledon.
— Tennismash (@tennismash) July 10, 2019
As only Williams can do, she played her way into form using her early-round victories as match practice, and now that she is in the second week, she has attained a significantly higher competitive level.
Teaming with Andy Murray in mixed doubles provided additional – and valuable – court time on days between her singles matches.
“I promise you, when I hit a volley (in singles) I was like: would I have made that if I didn’t play doubles? I don’t think so,” she laughed after her semifinal win over Barbora Strycova.
“I kept telling you guys I thought the doubles would help me. I really think it did. I don’t attack the net that much. I tried to and I want to. When I play doubles here with Venus, it definitely helps my singles game. I was really keen to play mixed here.
“I haven’t had a tremendous amount of time to prepare for this. But like I said in the beginning of this tournament, each and every match for me has to count as, like, five or 10 matches because I have not played a lot.
“This is the first time since Australia that I actually felt, like, good.”
Well known for her clay-court exploits, 2018 Roland Garros champion Halep also advanced to a major final on hard court when she reached the title match in Australia 18 months ago.
However, her best result at Wimbledon was a trip to the semifinals way back in 2014.
With her shorter stature, relatively linear groundstrokes and athleticism, the Romanian always seemed to have elements in her game suited to grass-court success. She also revealed she did not find the transition from clay to grass courts between the French Open and Wimbledon especially difficult.
However, ultimate success on this surface has not come until 2019. Why now?
Grass, I think I love you ??
— Simona Halep (@Simona_Halep) July 9, 2019
“I changed a little bit the game. I play some drop shots. I use the slice more. The serve is helping me. Now when the ball is coming to me, now I know what to do with it. Maybe that’s why,” she explained.
“Maybe I feel confident and I’m not scared any more of how the ball bounces. I think I have the feeling. And also I feel stable on the legs, which is very important on the grass.”
Few players avenge defeats better than Serena. And she revealed it was a loss to Halep at the WTA Finals in 2014 that explains her head-to-head dominance over the Romanian.
Five years ago, in their fourth career meeting, Halep crushed Williams 6-0 6-2 in the round-robin stages in Singapore – one of the heaviest losses of Serena’s professional career.
When they clashed in the final later that week, Williams returned the favour, dropping just three games in a title-match beatdown. And she has never lost to Halep since.
“I think the biggest key with our matches is the loss that I had. I never forgot it,” Williams said.
“She played unbelievable (that day). That makes me know that level she played at, she can get there again. So I have to be better than that.”
The manner in which Williams and Halep have advanced through the draw this fortnight in SW19 differs greatly; it’s a study of offence versus defence, and serve versus return.
IBM Match Stats and Insights reveal that Halep has run almost 4km further than Williams on court throughout her six matches, an insight into her counter-punching style. The Romanian also leads the tournament with 53 per cent of return games won – outperforming Williams’ figure of 43 per cent.
Yet on serve, Serena is in a league above. The tournament leader in aces and service speeds, she’s also ranked in the top 10 for both unreturned first serves and first-serve points won.
The takeaway? Saturday’s match-up will present a delightful contrast in styles. And that’s what makes for some of the sport’s best matches, and rivalries.
Williams’ progression to the final has, for stats and figures geeks, made for some pretty interesting reading.
The 37-year-old now owns the longest gap between her first (2002) and her most recent (2019) Wimbledon final; the 17-year span eclipses the 16 years between Martina Navratilova’s first and last singles finals at the All England Club (1978 and 1994).
Already the oldest Wimbledon finalist in the Open Era, she would become the oldest ever Wimbledon champion with victory over Halep.
Should she win, it would be her eighth Wimbledon singles trophy, seeing her overtake Steffi Graf (who won seven) and putting her one behind Navratilova, who owns the most Wimbledon singles trophies of all time.
And, most notably, victory would see her tie Margaret Court’s all-time record of 24 Grand Slam singles titles.
“I thought about it this morning,” she said of Court’s record after her semifinal victory.
“I actually didn’t think about it since because it’s really not about 24 or 23 or 25. It’s really just about going out there and giving my best effort no matter what. No matter what I do, I will always have a great career.
“I just kind of let it go this morning. I feel really calm about it.”
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