IT takes something, or someone, pretty special to upstage Serena Williams on ladies’ final day at Wimbledon. The 37-year-old is such a force of nature and global superstar that she always seems to be the story – win or lose.
This, if the pre-amble was to be believed, was her moment of destiny. After a couple of dry runs in Grand Slam finals since the birth of her daughter Olympia, this was surely the big day where she drew level with Margaret Court at the top of the all-time lists with 24. Her friend Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, had the best seat in the house to watch it all unfold.
In truth, with 13 of Court’s wins arriving in the years before the Open Era, Serena already is the greatest female tennis player of all time. She just wasn’t the best tennis player on court yesterday.
That, honour, undoubtedly belonged to Simona Halep, who produced a performance for the ages as she blew Williams off the court by a 6-2, 6-2 score in just 56 minutes.
The questions about where it all leaves Williams will come soon enough, of course. No-one can defy time forever and there was at least a suspicion of the bell tolling for her here, in a match where she appeared laboured compared to an opponent she was giving ten years to.
But all of that can wait. Because yesterday quite simply wasn’t about her.
Some players are beaten before they go on court against Serena; Halep thrived yesterday because she forgot who was on the other side of the net.
This selective amnesia allowed her to banish any notion of an inferioriy complex against an opponent who had beaten her nine of their ten previous meetings. Even her only win, in the round robin stage of the 2014 WTA finals, had been avenged with a crushing defeat in the knockout stages.
“I thought about the match, but I didn’t think at all about who I’m play against,” Halep said afterwards. “I’ve always been intimidated a little bit when I faced Serena. She’s an inspiration for everyone and the model for everyone. So today I decided before the match that I’m going to focus on myself and on the final of Grand Slam, not on her. That’s why I was able to play my best, to be relaxed, and to be able to be positive and confident against her.”
If Megan, the Duchess of Sussex, was Team Serena, Halep had done her best to co-opt Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge, to her cause. With the royals taking their seats before the players strode out, carrying bouquets of flowers as tradition dictates, the Romanian was out first, hardly glancing at her much-vaunted opponent.
It was the moment Halep’s mum Tania had been dreaming of since her daughter was a little girl. And it quickly became a nightmare for Serena.
There are shades of Andy Murray about the way Simona Halep plays her tennis, and not just because Aussie schemer Darren Cahill has played a key role in both careers. Both fine returners who are happy scampering around the baseline yet capable of doing damage as a counter puncher, particularly on the backhand side, Halep had fine-tuned her return the day before the match to help her get an excellent read on the fearsome Serena serve.
Consequently, we were well into the second set by the time Williams served her first ace of the day – just two she achieved all day – while Halep produced a near flawless display from the back of the court, making just a remarkable three unforced errors to Williams’ 26.
This match was beyond Serena in a flash, the kind of beating she often inflicts on others. While the crowd were on Serena’s side, a running cross-court backhand from Halep brought them off their feet as she raced into a 4-0 lead before the match was 11 minutes old.
She faced just one break point on her own serve all day long, a Williams forehand flying into the tramlines depriving her of a glimmer of hope at 2-4, but the first set was in the books when another forehand flew off target. “Serena, wake up,” one of her fans had shouted with desperation.
The alarm bells must have been going alright. While Serena pumped up the volume midway through that second set, momentum switched again in Halep’s favour and there was no chance of her letting up when she was a double break to the good. When Williams hit the net one last time on championship point, the winner sunk to her knees behind the baseline in disbelief then shed a tear. “My legs went a little soft,” she said.
In another echo of Murray’s win here, within seconds a Romanian flag had been produced behind her players’ box in recognition of a woman who had gone one better than beaten finalist Ilie Nastase to become the first ever Wimbledon singles winner from this proud country. There will be further scenes when she returns to Bucharest tomorrow.
It wasn’t just her usual coach Daniel Dobre, and Cahill, who had been the brains’ trust on this one. Halep had keyed into some words from one of her idols Roger Federer in his Friday press conference about how she should approach the match. “I read what he said and thanks to him. He is very nice. His words made me happy. If you listen to him, you get the good things.”
After defeats to Angelique Kerber here last year, then Naomi Osaka at the US Open, the wait for Grand Slam No 24 goes on for Williams. “She just played great,” said Serena, who would have been the oldest winner of all time had she won yesterday. “I don’t think it’s a surprise for anyone to play great against me. I just was trying different things. But today nothing really helped. I also made way too many errors for a lot of stuff to work.
“I just have to figure out a way to win a final now,” added the 37-year-old, who has played sparingly this year following a knee problem.
“Maybe playing other finals outside of Grand Slams would be really helpful just to kind of get in the groove so by the time I get to a Grand Slam final I’m kind of used to what to do.”
She had been happy to have the backing of the crowd, and was sad she hadn’t delivered. “I definitely felt the support and the love,” she said. “I appreciated it. I wanted to do better. But I don’t think my opponent wanted me to do better today. No matter which way you look at it, we’re not going to be out here in the next three, four, five years.”
She finished with a denunciation of the idea that she should spend less time as a celebrity and campaigner for equality and more time on the practice court. “The day I stop fighting for equality and for people that look like you and me will be the day I’m in my grave.”
The big question for Halep, on the other hand, is whether this serves as a springboard to further glory or a one-off, never to be repeated, special day. “I hope not,” she said. “I hope it’s going to be like this again.”