The sun was hot, though the wind was high, as one of the scarce Wimbledon champions in this year’s women’s draw, Petra Kvitova, hoped to emulate her 2011 victory. After the surprise loss of the two favourites here, five-time former champion Serena Williams and the 2004 champion Maria Sharapova, the tall, powerful, left-handed No6 seed had arguably become the favourite to repeat her youthful success.
Kvitova was just 21 when she won her first and only Grand Slam, but in contention this year were two of the new crop of young players bursting up the rankings. Indeed 22-year-old Simona Halep was the highest remaining seed in the draw, at a career-high No3, while her opponent, Eugenie Bouchard, just 20 years old, was also at a ranking peak of No13.
All in all, then, with three of the four born in the 1990s, this was the youngest Grand Slam final quartet since Wimbledon 2011—the year Kvitova won. And it made the fourth woman, Kvitova’s opponent, the oldest remaining woman: Lucie Safarova, also a Czech, was 27.
She deserved plaudits of her own, too, for she had reached her first Major semi-final after 37 tries, and was looking at a career-best No17 ranking. She had not managed to beat Kvitova in five previous meetings—four this year—but on the grass of Eastbourne two weeks ago, it had taken a final-set tie-breaker to decide the outcome.
Unfortunately, the result would be the same again—perhaps not surprising considering Kvitova’s impressive 24-3 win-loss record at her best Major. In this first-ever all-Czech semi-final in Grand Slam history, Kvitova won 7-6(6), 6-1.
But it was the battle between Bouchard and Halep that had captured the imagination, for both had broken fresh ground time and again in the last year, and their only previous meeting, at Indian Wells this spring, took three tough sets to decide—in Halep’s favour.
The petite Romanian began her breakthrough a year ago with a run of six titles that included the grass of ‘s-Hertogenbosch. She arrived at Wimbledon fresh from a final run at Roland Garros, and had looked increasingly impressive through the draw, not least in beating Sabine Lisicki in the quarter-finals, 6-4, 6-0, in just 57 minutes. She would become the new world No2 should she reach another Major final.
Bouchard, the only woman this year to have reached three Grand Slam semi-finals, has already made a huge impression not just here but throughout the tour, rising from 32 at the start of the year to become the youngest woman in the top 20. She was already guaranteed to rise to at least No8 before the tour headed back home for the North American swing.
It has been some story for this elegant, supremely mature young woman with the kind of all-court gifts that seem destined to take her to the very top—and she has enormous confidence in her ability, especially on Wimbledon’s grass: “Winning the junior title [in 2012] was still I think to this day the proudest accomplishment of my career.
“It really kind of propelled me into the pro circuit. You know, I’m very proud of that. Even last year I felt that I belonged, so I don’t feel like it’s a surprise that I’m doing even better this year. But definitely happy to have some success at Wimbledon. I love this tournament.”
That success has included a tough route through the draw, beginning with Daniela Hantuchova, taking in Andrea Petkovic, Alize Cornet and No9 seed, Angelique Kerber. But considering she was in the same eighth as Williams and the same quarter as Sharapova, she may still count her lucky stars.
Perhaps because the stakes were so high, or because Centre Court was completely packed in anticipation, or maybe it was the blustering wind, but both women were ragged in the opening games. Their timing and range was off, the rallies were short and a couple of loose service games saw a break each way by 2-2.
Then there was a worrying break as Halep limped to the chair for attention from the medic, not to her heavily-strapped thigh but to her ankle. There were murmurs of concern: Was this going to be over before it had started? Well no, Halep carried on and in fact both women now began to settle a little more.
Halep resisted two break points to level at 4-4 and Bouchard responded with a love hold, closing out with the finest rally of the match so far, full of chasing baseline angles.
In due course, they would have to play a tie-break, but errors still littered their tennis: Bouchard was up to 12, Halep to eight, neither managing as many winners. Then, to make matters even more tense, a person collapsed in the crowd just as Halep edged a 4-2 lead, and after a lengthy delay, she saw her lead whittled back to a 5-4 deficit. A couple of long backhands followed by a winning Bouchard smash, and the young Canadian had the first set, 7-6(5).
That seemed to take the brakes off Bouchard’s game, and helped by a couple of double faults from Halep, she broke in the third game and surged away with her forehand pounding the corners.
The second set was a mere 30 minutes, half the length of the first, but she hit the same number of winners, 10, though now her error rate plummeted as Halep’s rose.
Gutsy to the end, Halep fought off three match points to make it 2-5 and then attacked one last time to earn break point back and defend two more match points. But Bouchard, so focused for one so relatively inexperienced, finished it off with a smash, 6-2.
It had been far from pretty, rarely extended into long rallies, and was punctuated by both errors and extraneous events. But it showed just what a mature competitor this 20-year-old is.
Bouchard is already Canada’s first ever Wimbledon Grand Slam finalist, and even against the experience and hitting power of former champion Kvitova, she and her nation will fancy her chances of becoming their first champion, too.
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BIOGRAPHY: Anthony Martial