The Romanian took less than an hour to demolish the seven-times Wimbledon champion. But we shouldn’t write off Williams just yet
Last month, Simona Halep was asked what she thought when the word “grass” came up. She replied: “Picnics.” Now the 27-year-old Romanian is Wimbledon singles champion, having obliterated Serena Williams 6-2, 6-2 in less than an hour on centre court. It was a ruthless, near-perfect exhibition of grass-court tennis, and a brutal, confounding and at times poignant defeat for Williams, a seven-times winner here.
As Halep clutched the Venus Rosewater Dish to her chest, there was an obvious question: had she ever played better? “Never,” she beamed. “It was the best match. I had nerves. My stomach was not very well before the match. But I had no time for emotions.”
Watched from the royal box by the Duchess of Cambridge and the Duchess of Sussex, a friend of Williams’, Halep went on: “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.”
Williams, meanwhile, was poised, generous – emotions that can’t have been easy to summon after what had just happened on court. “She literally played out of her mind,” she said. “It was a little bit deer-in-the-headlights for me. Whenever a player plays like that you just have to take your hat off.”
It was, safe to say, not the result that experts or the denizens of centre court were expecting. Williams and Halep had met 10 times before and Halep had won just once. And that was in 2014.
Moreover, Williams seemed to have an appointment with history: she was a very toasty favourite to claim her 24th grand slam singles title, equalling Margaret Court’s record set from 1960 to 1973.
Williams was already rewriting the record books in other ways, too. Before she even struck a ball, she was – at 37 years and, to be precise, 290 days – the oldest grand-slam finalist ever. She has done much in recent times to make light of her age and the natural decline you might expect from an athlete. This has been especially true since she returned to competition following the birth of her daughter, Olympia, in September 2017. When Williams was bedridden for six weeks because of life-threatening postdelivery complications, including a pulmonary embolism, it would have been impossible to fathom that she would ever return to her formidable best.
Against the scuttling, quick-witted Halep on Saturday, though, Williams showed clear signs of fatigue and, well, being almost 38. When she plays like this, Halep is a brick wall, and a partisan crowd became desperate, searching for ways that Williams could impose herself on the match. “Business bun!” screamed one fan, referring to the hairstyle that Williams often adopts mid-match when matters require serious attention. “I need the business bun!”
As brilliant as Halep was, it was also hard not to wonder if the occasion had proved too much for Williams. She started the match tentatively, and within 12 minutes was 4-0 down. Williams has spent the past fortnight denying that she was even thinking about Court’s record. This was not easy to believe, not least because she was questioned about it at every press conference. She was also contradicted by her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, who has worked with her since 2012.
Before the final, Mouratoglou was asked if winning her 24th grand slam at this Wimbledon would be particularly special for her: “Of course,” he replied. “I’m not going to lie. This record is the number one reason she came back to tennis. She had a baby, she started a family, she became a mother. She had to accept the pressure, accept to live this life again, travel around the world at 37 years old. And that’s because she wants it so much. It is the only reason she came back to tennis.”
Clearly only a fool would write Williams off. But some – notably tennis legend Billie Jean King – have said that if she is really serious about taking Court’s record, she has to concentrate completely on tennis, and focus less on her family and the advocacy work she does on race and gender equality.
This, however, Williams will not do. “The day I stop fighting for equality and for people that look like me,” she said on Saturday after the defeat, “will be the day I’m in my grave.”