Serena Williams and Simona Halep met at a Grand Slam once before this year. That Australian Open fourth round clash was perhaps one of the best Major matches of 2019 so far.
The Romanian was the top seed and world No 1 and she fought tooth and nail after forcing a decider against the 2017 champion on her return after being blitzed 6-1 in the first set. But she found herself on the losing side as Serena Williams battled back to beat her in three.
It was in this match that we saw the now famous ‘business bun’ come up as the American dug deep in the decider. It was in this match that we got Halep utter a great description of playing Williams: felt like I had been hit by the train in the first set. Everything was too fast.
The Romanian is no longer ranked No 1 and she might not be under the same kind of pressure when the seventh seed takes on seven-time champion in her first Wimbledon final. In fact, she is “chilling” as she said about her poor season without a single title.
It is Williams’ second straight final here and the pressure from last year’s match is still very much present. For the third time in a year, she finds herself once again just a win away from tying Margaret Court’s all-time record of 24 Major titles. While it may not seem like a big deal for someone who has overtaken Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova and Steffi Graf, the number has been a bit of a obstacle.
Thrice now, she has stumbled on the verge of the milestone, with a strange drop in level in the loss to Angelique Kerber in the 2018 Wimbledon final, a very public spat meltdown against Naomi Osaka in a controversial 2018 US Open final, and an odd performance after having match point on serve against Karolina Pliskova in the 2019 Australian Open quarter-final.
This final, though, seems different. Unlike 2018, she has had enough experience after her maternity break and is looking fitter than she has since her return after treatment in France after Roland Garros. She has been tested a lot more this Wimbledon as well, and brought out the goods in both singles and mixed doubles with Andy Murray.
Playing with freedom and authority
However, Halep will provide her toughest challenge yet, and not only because it is the title clash. The former world No 1 is the first Top 10 player Williams will face this year. The 27-year-old has dropped just the one set so far, powered through against Victoria Azarenka and story-of-the-tournament Coco Gauff is two matches that would have normally tested her, and held her nerves despite going down a break against Shuai Zhang and Elina Svitolina.
These are important factors that have too often in the past held back Halep. But on the grass of Wimbledon, she is playing with a freedom and authority that eluded her so far at most Grand Slams.
In her only previous semi-final at the All England Club, she rolled her ankle and lost to Eugenie Bouchard in 2014. She has lost early every year since, even in the two years she made the French Open finals. But this version of Halep feels different, moving well and finishing points strong even on grass, a surface she hasn’t always done well on.
She doesn’t have a huge serve but she has been canny on return with the ability to retrieve balls and punch from the baseline for extended periods of time. This will enable her to hit from corner to corner and create chances against Williams.
But on grass, the American is well capable of killing the point if the rally goes on for too long with her cracking winners. She has perfectly raised her level every time she has been tested here, dropping a set to Kaja Juvan in the second round and then to Alison Riske in the quarters.
Their head-to-head record also favours Williams who is 9-1 against the Romanian. But Halep’s one win was a crushing 6-0, 6-2 at the 2014 WTA Finals in Singapore – a match the American alluded to after her semi-final win. “I think the biggest key with our matches is the loss that I had. I never forgot it. She played unbelievable. That makes me know that level she played at, she can get there again. So I have to be better than that.”
But if she has not forgotten that match, she has not forgotten the wins either and how she earned them. The last two matches between them went to a third set with the veteran holding through.
All in the mind
Physically, Williams looks rejuvenated to last the three sets and come out on top. Despite playing five events this year and struggling with injuries throughout the season, she has looked strong even when playing two matches a day.
The bigger question in the decider might just be the mental aspect. Halep has been known to lose the mental battle often but has won her first Major now, after losing her first three finals. Williams may still have the No 24 playing at the back of her mind. In the end, it will be a question of who holds their nerves as well as their serves.
After the Australian Open match mentioned above, Halep was asked if she feels like she is improving against the veteran. Her answer is what she will have to do to win her second Grand Slam: “I played better. I stayed in the rallies better. I won the long rallies. I felt like I had more power playing against her. I moved well…. I cannot feel exactly what I improved, but I feel like being close to her, it’s a good level.”
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