Simona Halep played a near-flawless final on Saturday to become the first Romanian woman to win Wimbledon, simultaneously wrecking Serena Williams’s bid for a record-equalling 24th major, a dream that grows more unlikely by the day.
The 37-year-old American – still one short of Margaret Court’s all-time tally – smiled graciously at the end but will have been crying inside, while Halep beamed like a lighthouse in celebration of a 6-2, 6-2 drubbing in 56 minutes of perhaps the game’s greatest player.
“She really played out of her mind,” Williams said. “Whenever a player plays that amazing you just have to take your hat off and give her a nod.”
Halep, charm and joy personified, agreed she had never played a better match. “I had nerves,” she said. “My stomach was not very well before the match. But I had no time for emotions and just came out and tried my best.
“It was my mum’s dream when I was about 10. And the day came and my mum is here to see it. I have worked a lot to change a little bit my game to play on grass. I started to feel this year when the ball comes to me I knew what to do with it. I can’t wait to come back here.”
A hat-trick of errors, culminating in a forehand wide, cost Williams her opening service game and Halep held to love to go 2-0 up inside five minutes, the perfect start.
When she ran down a third angled reply to hit a winner on the run in the third game, Halep was like a terrier snapping at the wheels of a Rolls-Royce. Williams’s coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, shook his head in the stands when Halep went 3-0 up with a sublime return into the forehand corner. “This is the best returning I’ve seen since I can’t remember when,” John McEnroe observed.
It was 4-0 Halep in 11 minutes. This was Serena-pace demolition. Writers in the press seats looked around, wondering if they would have enough copy to fill their alloted wordages. And then a love hold for Williams. Was normal service about to be resumed?
The first five games had taken less than a quarter of an hour – but this did not resemble Williams’s odd struggle in the quarter-finals against Alison Riske, when her tennis deserted her for long periods. She was still hitting the ball with deadly precision; it was just that Halep was hitting it back at her in nearly every rally.
Williams finally made some inroads on the Halep serve in the sixth game, taking her to deuce with a wicked crosscourt forehand and getting her first break point with another down the line. But she could do nothing about the Halep forehand with which she held for 5-1 after just 20 minutes. Within six minutes the set belonged to Halep, although the manner of her taking it left Centre Court stunned.
Williams had not done a lot wrong. She had just been out-hustled in a whirlwind start and her challenge was first to stem the bleeding, then to get up and start winning the race. There was a moment of almost existential release after she hit a solid winner in the opening game of the second set, when she bent over the turf and screamed at it for 10 seconds.
Shot by shot, she got back into the fight. Her sister, Venus, looked on calmly from her box, no doubt quietly worrying for her as hard as she would for herself. Over in the royal box her best royal friend, Meghan Markle, smiled benignly, in a Duchess of Sussex sort of way. Cambridge was near to Sussex, for royal box purposes anyway, and she smiled brightly too.
If there were any Romanians up there, they probably were not smiling like this. Williams did not smile. She never does, until the job is done and then she gives it the full lights-on treatment. She had some work to do to get the opportunity.
Halep stayed steady, kept running, kept getting the forehand killers back, kept asking the questions. She got another look on the Williams serve in the fifth game that might have opened up a pathway to the finish line. Williams spoilt the good work in a long rally by putting a straightforward winner long.
Crisis now enveloped Williams, a set and a break down with history calling her. She had been here so many times before but, since becoming a mother in September 2017 she had not won a tournament in what has been a stuttering comeback.
In key moments Halep was not making dumb mistakes, and that was the difference between them. Her serve was less than lethal but it was serviceable; she gave Williams very few opportunities to hurt her second serve and she led 4-2 after a solid hold.
“She seems to have lost her spirit, her belief,” Tracy Austin observed of her fellow American, as she struggled to get back in the match, an anaemic backhand at 40-30 dribbling into the net. Another gave Halep break point.
She had won all three to come her way to this point – but Williams found an ace, when the Romanian misjudged the flight of the ball. Again, however, Williams netted and her head dropped, her 24th unforced error, to three from Halep.
A 25th arrived immediately and Halep had her fifth break point of the match. This time she drove it down the line and, after 54 minutes, she stepped up to serve for her second slam title.
Williams thudded a backhand into the net: 15-0. Her nervous forehand went long: 30-0. Halep served big down the middle: 40-0 and three championship points. One more desperate Williams forehand, almost in angry response to her wretched slippage, and the job was done.
It was the most unexpected finish to a match few had predicted would go this way. But there was no denying Halep, who played the near-perfect match in the middle of a storm that eventually ran out of force.
Williams has won only two of her past six finals in majors. The last was two and a half years ago in Melbourne. She is 38 in September. If she is to add to her story, she had better do it soon.
- The Guardian of UK