Yet the bare statistics were weighted heavily in favour of the remarkable 37-year-old Williams:
o Career titles, 72 to Halep’s 18
o Major singles titles, 23 to Halep’s one
o Wimbledon singles titles and finals, seven from what is now 11 finals; Halep is into her first final
o Weeks at No1, 319 to Halep’s 64
o And Williams owns a 9-1 head-to-head lead over Halep.
But that did not reveal the whole story:
o In their last two meetings, both at Majors, the matches had gone to three sets
o Halep was the more recent Major champion, picking up her French Open title last year; Williams’ last Major came in Australia in 2017
o Halep was 10 years younger
o Neither woman had won a title this year
o And both women had played their best tennis of the tournament in their semi-finals.
But did it look like a level playing ground? Not to most pundits.
Williams was, after all, runner-up here last year, in just her fourth tournament of the season, her first since returning from maternity leave. Indeed her loss in the final here a year ago was her first since 2015, a 26-1 run on grass through two titles and a runner-up trophy.
But if there was one thing to focus the Williams mind even more sharply, it was a particular record. The American already held the Open era record—man or woman—for Major singles titles, 23. But she would dearly love to equal the Margaret Court record of 24, achieved across the closed and open eras. And the hopes and expectations of that had been weighing heavy since she won No23 two and half years ago.
And as she pointed out about her petite, super-fit, never-say-die opponent:
“You can’t underestimate her. She’s like a little powerhouse.”
Little the popular Romanian may be, at just 5ft 6in tall, but she is one of the most nimble of players around a tennis court. Not only that, she has grown into one of the most confident aggressors on a court, willing to take on the big shots, and take the ball early on return-of-serve. She had broken serve 31 times in the tournament, won 53 percent of her return games, and had made only 75 unforced errors in her six matches.
Halep was also playing the greater assurance and freedom since ticking off her first Major in Paris last year. Federer, one of her idols, summed it up:
“You have to have that winner mentality, that I belong here, I’ve earned my way here, I’ve been playing great. You don’t get to a Wimbledon final playing average, you know… She needs to back herself and enjoy it also…. The good thing is she’s won a slam before. She knows how to do it.”
And that burden, heavy on Williams side, light on Halep’s, was clear from the very first ball. The Romanian broke in the opening game, broke again in the third, and held for a 4-0 lead. She had made no unforced errors at all, Williams had made seven.
Williams finally worked a break point courtesy of two return-of-serve winners, but could not convert it. Halep held for 5-1, and served out the set with ease 6-2, in just 26 minutes. There was only one ace on the stats board, and it was on Halep’s side, along with just two errors.
Williams, encouraged by the roars of the crowd, settled a little more at the start of the second set, but was going for one-two strikes. Halep’s tactical game was to keep the rallies going, ply the side-lines, draw Williams in, and pull off the winner or draw the error, and it worked a treat.
The fifth game summed up the differences: Halep out-paced Williams all around the court, and rushed the former champion. Meanwhile, the Romanian served at an extremely high level: She was now up to 80 percent, and would drop only four points on serve in the set.
Sure enough, she got the break in the fifth game as Williams pushed a backhand long, her 18th error. And Halep never looked back, broke again in the seventh, and served out the victory to love, 6-2, in under an hour.
Williams had made 26 errors to only three from Halep: It had been a champion’s performance against the former champion who had been given no chance to get on top of her nerves. And the Centre Court crowd appreciated it, giving her a rapturous standing ovation.
They appreciated still more the charm of their new champion, who spoke with wit and warmth of how special this had been.
Asked if she had ever played better, she said:
“Never. It was my best match. Serena has always inspired us, so thanks for that. It was the first time in front of the Royal Box!”
Halep had made no secret of her admiration for the Patron of the All England Club, the Duchess of Cambridge, and was delighted that Kate plus the Duchess of Sussex, Meghan Markle, were there to watch the final.
But the most pride was addressed to her box, where her parents and team smiled and cried in equal measure. Halep revealed:
“It was my mum’s dream. She said when I was 10 that if I want to do something in tennis it is to play in the Wimbledon final. So today, the day came.”
She beamed, and then added another anecdote:
“I spoke to people in the locker room that if I win, it would be amazing, I will get membership for life—it was one of the motivations for me.”
And she afterwards revealed that she had already been assured by the Chairman of the Club that she could now come and go here as she pleased, and would always be welcomed with open arms. She beamed again, and then again at the thought of how her victory, the first ever for a Romanian, would be celebrated at home. No, she said, she still was not in any hurry to leave:
“First, I have the Champions’ Dinner tomorrow night. I’m not rushing to go home!”
But what of Williams, and what is now her third final without ticking off that 24th title? She thought long and hard about how many more chances she would have:
“I don’t know. I mean, I don’t really think about it. I just go out there and play, see what happens. That’s kind of how I’ve been in my whole career. I never thought about time in general. But, yeah, I don’t know. I don’t think it’s harder. I think it’s just coming out there and doing the best that you can do.”
Now that she is back to full fitness, which she has not been for most of this season, perhaps it will come together at her home Major, where she was also runner-up last year, though far from her best. She has won 95 matches at the US Open, so could match Roger Federer’s 100 at Wimbledon with a run to the semis.
But beware the feisty and fun Halep: She converted her taste for clay into a taste for grass, and that despite:
“I never thought that I’m able to win on grass with all these players that are very tall and serving with a lot of power… But this year, I started to feel the game more and more. I started to feel safe on court, which helped me a lot to believe.”
There is no reason, then, that she cannot do it all again in New York.
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BIOGRAPHY: Ethan Hazard
BIOGRAPHY: Daniel Sturridge