Serena Williams is one of the foremost greats of tennis, but her entrance into the semifinals of Wimbledon is an even greater stretch for the 23-time Grand Slam singles champion.
In order to reach her tenth Wimbledon singles final, she must close the gap between the “Serena as top-seeded maven” in 2016, when she won the title for the seventh time, and the resurgent Serena, the one she wants to become again at 36 and as a mother. Her champion’s spirit is as stake, plus her honor and her fierce sense of competition. She doesn’t take them lightly.
Her opponent, Julia Goerges, will be on new ground as well. She, like Serena, is in revival mode. After 13 years on tour she cracked the top 10 for the first time in early February. Her rise last year started a few years earlier, though, when she shook up her surroundings.
“It was almost three years ago when I decided to make a change in my team,” Goerges told the press at Wimbledon. “I went completely a new way. I took a new physio, a new coach. I changed my residence. I went from the north to the south of Germany really to start everything from zero.”
Goerges had to unearth her hidden treasures, almost as though she intuitively knew they were in her genes — dulled a touch but bursting with anticipation.
“I thought there is much more potential in my game and in myself to reach my goals I want to achieve,” she began, adding, “to become the best player I can be with my abilities.”
Changes take time, and Goerges has exercised patience.
“It takes a lot of time and a lot of work. I think it’s everything worth it for the season I’m playing now, that I’m sitting here right now. I’m able to play on Thursday, semifinal against Serena Williams. I think that’s something what a player is dreaming of.”
The German should be primed but not loose for the fight of her life, since this will be her first major semifinal. She, like all four semifinalists, deserves to be there. She played Serena at the French Open and lost in the third round. It was a taste of what is ahead of her, if only for the grass.
Goerges demonstrated how she might get by Serena in her quarterfinal against Kiki Bertens. Goerges, seeded 14th, served beautifully and efficiently. She used this asset to its fullest and set up quick-playing points, the one-two tennis as described by Rennae Stubbs. Goerges also showed her fleetness of foot, running after one ball from the other side of the stadium to flick a crosscourt forehand winner at a severe angle. Fans rose in appreciation. She is a demonstrated doubles champion, having reached three major semifinals, too.
Of all the players who have advanced this far, Goerges could be the exact one Serena needs to face given their separate goals and visions, their places in their lives, and their styles of play.
PICK: Goerges in three… but like all players wishing for the ripest fruit, she will have to go through a Williams sister to get there.
Angelique Kerber, on the other side of the draw, will meet Jelena Ostapenko. With both Kerber and Goerges being German natives, it’ll be the first time since 1993 that two Germans have made a semifinal at a major. Back then Anke Huber lost in the semifinal to eventual champion Steffi Graf.
Kerber, like Williams and Goerges, is also trudging along the road of redemption. She reached a pinnacle in 2016, ending the year as the number one player in the world. She won two Grand Slams then: the Australian Open, where she beat Serena in the final, plus the U.S. Open, where she beat Karolina Pliskova. Additionally, she made good on the grass, falling to Serena in the final of Wimbledon.
The pressures of being the top-ranked player distressed Kerber. Her style of play, which is a combination of consistently dogged defense sprinkled with downright aggression, wore her out.
To arrest her tumble in the rankings, she also shook up her team. In November of 2017, she hired Wim Fissette, to whom she attributes her comeback. There was little in her game that needed adjustment. Rather, her mind became muddled with negative thoughts that derailed results. A perfectionist like many players, she had to learn to move past that nagging interior monologue or accept it, and then step up to the baseline. Before she got to that point she went on a 27-tournament title drought which dated back to the 2016 U.S. Open.
A semifinal at The Australian Open this year, seeded the lowest at No. 30 since 2012, infused hope. Then she generated two quarterfinal results in what the WTA calls the “Sunshine Double,” Indian Wells and Miami. During the clay-court season she advanced to the quarterfinals of Rome and Roland Garros. On grass, she arrived at Wimbledon toting a semifinal run from Eastbourne.
“I think there are no favorites anymore,” Kerber told the press on Tuesday after eliminating Daria Kasatkina in the quarterfinals. “We are in the semis right now. I’m not looking left or right. I’m not looking about the others. I’m really taking care about my game, about my matches, about how I play on court. This is all I care [about] actually, to be honest.”
Jelena Ostapenko, the youngster of the final four, will be the obstacle for Kerber. Their styles of play conflict. Kerber is the counterpuncher with footwork who hearkens back to Melanie Oudin, never-stopping stutter steps and balance when contacting the ball. She, too, can switch gears to first-strike tennis, something she might have to engage in against Ostapenko, never mind the margin for error.
“I don’t feel any pressure,” Ostapenko said Tuesday. “I’m just going out there and enjoying it. Probably because at the French Open a couple weeks ago I had so much pressure. It’s now all gone.”
The Latvian lost in the opening round of Paris as the defending champion. It was a lesson she had to learn. She learned it quickly. Her power game is astonishingly captivating. She can hit winners from any spot to any spot on any court, yet she feels most comfortable on grass, especially this grass that’s dry and hard underneath. Nonetheless once that game gets in gear, there’s little an opponent can do.
From a defensive perspective Ostapenko “now leads all Wimbledon players [male or female] in return winners with 23,” tweeted Chris Oddo of Tennis Now on Tuesday.
Ostapenko, seeded No. 12, has not played Kerber or any of the other semifinalist. Kerber will frustrate Ostapenko, but Kerber’s footspeed shouldn’t bother her. Dominika Cibulkova, whom Ostapenko defeated in the quarterfinals, is one of the best movers out there. Ostapenko’s ball placement should be credited for that.
“Of course she can win this,” Cibulkova told the press Tuesday. “She made it before. She can make it again. She’s young. She’s playing with no fear. These are advantages. I think on the grass she’s playing even better than on the clay. It might be her year.”
Ostapenko is young; she has played only once on Centre Court, where she lost in the quarterfinals to Venus Williams last year. Kerber will be across the net on Thursday.
No matter her age and lack of experiences, Ostapenko also seems to be traveling that upward trajectory from a slight dip after winning Roland Garros a year ago. She, though, will probably be the only one listening to Russian pop music as she walks on court.
PICK: Ostapenko in three …