Representing the top quarter, it may not have been the world No1 and French Open champion Ashleigh Barty, nor the defending champion Angelique Kerber who survived. It was, though, one of the greatest ever to wield a tennis racket on Centre Court, playing here for the 19th time, winner of seven singles titles, six doubles titles and one mixed doubles title at the tournament. Serena Williams had won 97 matches here along the way, and was aiming to match her 2018 run to the final—just months after returning from maternity leave.
Seeded just 11, it had not been an easy ride—two seeds dispatched and two three-setters along the way—but she did not face Kerber, nor Barty, nor Garbine Muguruza in what had looked a killer of a quarter. Instead, it was a woman making her debut appearance in a Major singles semi-final, having just won her first Major quarter-final, Barbora Strycova, ranked 54.
The Czech, ranked No3 in doubles, and also through to her first semi-final here in that format too, had become the oldest first-time Major semi-finalist in the Open ear, age 33. Her opponent? Williams turns 38 in September.
Williams admitted that her light schedule this season, just five tournaments due to injury, had not been the ideal preparation but that, yes, she was getting better all the time—helped, it should be said, by some athletic mixed doubles with Andy Murray during the last few days.
“I haven’t had a tremendous amount of time to prepare for this. But 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 good. It’s been a really, really long year for me already, a hard year, because I’m usually not injured. Now that I feel good, I can actually focus on training and technique and practice, something that I just literally haven’t been able to do a lot of.”
But she would face a very different style of opponent in Strycova, whose doubles skills and speed and fitness had broken down the power of four seeds, including No4 Kiki Bertens and No19 Johanna Konta.
Strycova also had the air of someone with nothing to lose, for whom this may be her last Wimbledon. She said before the quarters:
“This is my 17th Wimbledon, so I just said to myself, OK, I try to enjoy every single moment on the court, and every match I play and every match I win it’s a bonus for me… Every day, even if I have a day off, I walk around the court, look where I was playing when I was a junior and I’m proud of myself.”
Would she use the same attacking, forward-moving tennis that had got her this far against Williams? As she said:
“Of course, I don’t have as much power as Serena, but I have other weapons.”
Unfortunately for the Czech, she seldom had the opportunity to use them as Williams took control almost from the first, moving well, striking cleanly, and breaking in the fourth game, 3-1. She broke again and served out the first set with an ace, 6-1, saving break point into the bargain.
It had taken her just 27 minutes, and while Strycova lived with the champion until the fifth game in the second set, she could not get the better of Williams, making just one serve-and volley winner in the match and only four points won at the net. Contrast that with the 65 serve-and-volley points she had won in her preceding matches.
Williams broke once more, 5-2, and served out a fine performance, 6-2, in under an hour.
Turning to the bottom half of the draw, and that also did not feature its two scheduled seeds, No2 Naomi Osaka and No3 Karolina Pliskova.
But here were two very familiar, very successful women, former No1 Simona Halep and former No3 Elina Svitolina, both with double-digit titles, though the elder by three years, Halep, counted among them a French Open title from four Major finals, and a previous semi-final run at Wimbledon.
For Svitolina, this was her first time beyond the fourth round at the All England Club and her first Major semi-final anywhere, though she had made four quarters in Australia and Roland Garros. In her favour, however, was her biggest triumph to date, at the WTA Finals last October.
She also counted a 4-3 lead over Halep in their previous matches, including three straight-forward wins in the last four. However the popular Romanian had won their most recent, in Doha, in three long sets.
This time, it was as though Halep had been born to the slow-playing grass here. The two women exchanged long baseline service games to open, Halep with a nine-minute hold after three break points and Svitolina giving up the break at the third attempt in a 10-minute game.
Svitolina suddenly pounced in the third game to get a love break back, but she would not get another game in the set as Halep upped her level, picked her down-the-line shots, opened the court, and broke twice to serve it out, 6-1—in the same time it had taken to play the first two games.
The second set moved along faster with Halep not even facing a break point: She held her first three service games to love. She then broke Svitolina twice to claim set and match, 6-3, and reach her first Wimbledon final.
Halep was delighted as she spoke to the BBC:
“It is one of the best moments of my life. I’m really excited but also nervous. I’m just trying to enjoy it as much as possible… I have more experience, I am positive on court, and I am not giving up anymore. I have learnt many things in five years.”
That was how long ago it had been since she first played a semi-final here.
Svitolina admitted to nerves, but was generous in her assessment of Halep:
“Well, I was nervous, but I think it was the same as on some other matches, like big matches… I don’t know if it’s lack of experience little bit today, but I think she played unbelievable today. She was moving really good, striking the ball perfectly. It’s little bit me making poor decisions in some important moments, and then her playing unbelievable.”
Halep now faces a mountain of a task if she is to win here, however. Even putting to one side the records and increasing form of Williams through the fortnight, the American has a 9-1 advantage over Halep, dating back to their very first meeting in 2011, right here. That, like their other two Major meetings, went the distance.
But whoever comes out the other side with the Venus Rosewater dish will be making their own personal piece of history, though the Williams story grows in lustre with almost every match. She has now become the oldest Major finalist in the Open era, and should she go on to win the title, she will match the all-time record of Margaret Court’s 24 Majors—and become the oldest female ever to win a Major.
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BIOGRAPHY: Ethan Hazard
BIOGRAPHY: Daniel Sturridge