WIMBLEDON, England — That was peak Serena, and certainly not the same player we saw in the first couple rounds here at the All England Club.
Just last week, Williams lost a set to a player ranked outside the top 100. Since then, she has been steadily improving with each successive round. That progression reached a new level today, when she played fellow 30-something Barbora Strycova off the court in a 6-1, 6-2 semifinal victory that took all of 59 minutes. She’s moving better, she’s striking the ball better—heck, she’s doing everything better than she did in Week One. Which is great news for her camp, because she will face a more-than-worthy opponent in the Wimbledon final on Saturday: Simona Halep, who was similarly dominant in beating world No. 8 Elina Svitolina. Halep’s 6-1, 6-3 triumph lasted 73 minutes. You have to wonder what took her so long.
The semifinal double on Centre Court was over in the blink of an eye, an interesting contrast to what was such a wide-open and unpredictable tournament. Williams and Halep made it abundantly clear on Thursday that they are the two players most deserving of a shot at the trophy, and it’s hard to be anything but satisfied with a Williams/Halep finale. An all-time great against the player who started the year as the world No. 1.
Of course, we must pause to acknolwedge how special it is that Williams is playing this well as a a 37-year-old mother. It’s even more remarkable when you re-watch her matches from the French Open, where just five weeks ago she looked sluggish, possibly injured and, well, something like what you’d expect a 37-year-old mother to look like. She did not play a tournament between Paris and London, prioritizing rest and recuperation over match play. That decision was questioned by many, but it’s worked out to perfection, as she used the first week of the tournament here to play her way into form. She looks both healthy and hungry for major No. 24, and if she even sniffs the level she found today, she will tie Margaret Court’s all-time record.
We can—and often do—argue until the cows come home about whether Court’s mark is legitimate, but it clearly matters to Serena. She doesn’t let on much, but this is a record she has desired ever since it has been within reach. And you have to think her recent failures in major finals only adds to the level of desire. She wants badly to get this chase over with and silence the very, very few who still question her GOAT status.
Williams has now reached three Grand Slam finals since returning from maternity leave. She lost the first two: here last year, to Angelique Kerber, when she looked out of gas; and at the U.S. Open to Naomi Osaka, in a match that will be remembered more for the spectacle than the tennis. She will once again be the favorite against Halep, though this will be anything but routine. Halep has the counter-punching acument to absorb Serena’s pace and make her hit extra shots. She’s also a gamer who relishes the big moment, a savvy and mature veteran who will be playing without pressure nor expectation. Her coaches would do well to remind her that she has been world No. 1 more recently than Williams, that she has won a Grand Slam more recenly than Williams, that she crushed a top-10 player in the Wimbledon semifinal.
Still, this has the distinct whiff of a history for Serena Williams. Tiger Woods completed his comeback at golf’s most iconic venue, Augusta National. For Serena Williams to follow suit—by winning No. 24, and her first since Olympia—at Wimbledon would be nothing short of poetic from the sports scripwriters.