Was there a single person on this planet who expected Simona Halep to win Wimbledon before this 2019 tournament began? I’m sure there was. Did people in tennis expect Halep to win Wimbledon at some point in her career? A fair amount… but probably not an outright majority.
We could have a discussion about what it means to be “expected” to do something, but let’s channel this discussion in and through two other occasions in which a 37-year-old lost a Wimbledon women’s final, as Serena Williams did on Saturday.
In 2017, 37-year-old Venus Williams lost to Garbine Muguruza. Much as Simona Halep won major No. 1 at Roland Garros in one year and then won Wimbledon the next, so it also was that Muguruza won major No. 1 in France in 2016 and then won major No. 2 at the All England Club the next year.
Yet, unlike Halep entering this year’s tournament, Muguruza entered Wimbledon in 2017 having already shown the high-end talent needed to win at SW19. She made the 2015 final with a big game grass courts are suited to. She was nervous in the final but made a late rally to push Serena before ultimately losing. After that 2015 Wimbledon, no one ever could have said that Muguruza winning Wimbledon would have been a surprise. Plenty of people in tennis looked at that Wimbledon and surely said, “Garbine will win this one day.”
To be sure, Halep had not been rubbish at Wimbledon over the years. She had been solid, making several quarterfinals and the 2014 semifinals. Yet, we can just as readily acknowledge that Halep had a lot more to prove at SW19 entering 2019 than Muguruza did in 2017. Muguruza, when locked in, can dominate matches. Obviously, that version of Garbine is nowhere to be seen today, but in 2017, let’s remember that when Muguruza turned on the switch, it was basically game over.
Halep’s playing style and overall identity — chiefly a lack of a huge serve — aren’t as conducive to dominant performances against elite opponents. This doesn’t mean Halep can’t dominate — just look at how she played her semifinal and final at this year’s Wimbledon — but it means that her margin for error was smaller, the path to victory at the All England Club not as visible before the tournament as several others, particularly Serena, Ash Barty, and Petra Kvitova.
Muguruza was not necessarily the obvious choice at Wimbledon in 2017 — people wondered about her after she lost to Kristina Mladenovic at Roland Garros — but as soon as she got through Manic Monday at Wimbledon that year, many people in the tennis world said, “Oh, yeah. I remember this kind of player. She’s the favorite.”
Few people were saying Halep was the favorite after she beat Coco Gauff on Manic Monday.
Plenty of people felt she had a great path to the final, but who was picking her over Serena, saying it was Simona’s tournament to lose? People who follow tennis were worried about the matchup with Zhang Shuai in the quarters, given the past matches those players had contested.
Most people did pick Halep to beat Elina Svitolina in the semifinals, but Svitolina is not an especially strong grass-court player, and most experts — while picking Halep — expected a close match.
Unlike Muguruza against the 37-year-old Venus Williams in 2017 — in which Muguruza won a Wimbledon title which did NOT come as a shock to outsiders — Conchita Martinez over 37-year-old Martina Navratilova in the 1994 Wimbledon women’s final created a situation a lot more akin to this Halep championship, 25 years later.
Conchita Martinez — like Halep — was not a bad Wimbledon player. She made the semifinals in 1993, one year before her Wimbledon breakthrough. She made three Wimbledon semifinals in the best and most productive years of her career, a four-year stretch from 1993 through 1996. Yet, if people in tennis expected Martinez to win a major, it was supposed to come at Roland Garros, where the Spaniard reached 11 quarterfinals — including 8 in a row — plus four semifinals and one final.
When Martinez did beat a 37-year-old Martina in 1994, it wasn’t a seismic shock, similar to Halep in 2019. Yet, it also wasn’t the outcome people were expecting before the tournament. Steffi Graf was supposed to win 1994 Wimbledon, much as Ash Barty was expected this year. (Both women have wicked slice backhands tailored to grass.) Conchita benefited from Lori McNeil taking out Graf in one of the most famous upsets of the Open Era. Halep benefited from Madison Keys and Karolina Pliskova being ambushed before playing them in the draw.
Did Martinez in 1994 and Halep in 2019 look like the best players in the tournament? Yes they did… but very few people saw it coming. Pretending most people expected these results, 25 years apart, would be an example of revisionist history.
We are left with the reality that the player who was expected to win Roland Garros — Halep — won Wimbledon instead. The player expected to win Wimbledon — Barty — won Roland Garros instead.
At a point in time when the discussion of tennis surfaces consumes fans and media, the reality of Barty winning in Paris and Halep winning at SW19 will make people say, “SEE! Grass really is clay! Slow courts!”
That is not the right takeaway to glean from the women’s tournament at Wimbledon, or from Halep’s title.
This is the true lesson: Great tennis travels.
What I mean by that statement is that if you know how to play tennis in a fuller, larger sense, you can win anywhere on any surface. It doesn’t necessarily mean you will be expected to win, but you will give yourself a chance.
Barty did this in France. Halep did it in England.
Both their draws opened up in these last two European natural-surface major tournaments. Both pounced on the opportunity. Both women moved so fluidly around the court, a skill which translates to any tennis match, anyplace and anytime. Both women were rock-solid on defense and made opponents play lots of balls, often one more than they were able to successfully keep in the court. Barty got more from her serve in Paris than Halep did at Wimbledon if we are to compare seven-match tournaments, but Halep certainly got a lot from her first serve against Svitolina and Serena in these last two matches, which was essential to her championship.
Halep’s skill set will remain a more natural overall fit for clay compared to Barty, and Barty’s overall skill set will remain a more natural overall fit for grass compared to Halep… but at tournaments in which opportunities presented themselves (and in which both players felt comparatively LESS pressure than at their “home” majors), both players were ready to win.
They had skill sets good enough to win.
It is true that certain surfaces elicit certain playing styles and elevate certain players in ways other surfaces do not. Look at Alison Riske and Barbora Strycova making deep runs at Wimbledon in 2019. Yet, as Simona Halep and Ash Barty show (not to mention Jo Konta the past three months as well), good tennis travels.
Most of us might have expected Halep and Barty to win the past two majors in reverse order, but no one can dispute that they are well-rounded tennis players who will give themselves a chance to succeed in any conditions.
That statement is true on — and beneath — the surface of the laws of the All England Club, where Halep reigns supreme.