Nary a drop of rain has fallen at Wimbledon since the first ball was struck on July 9. Great Britain, we know, is the epicenter of damp.
Yet on the horizon for the four women’s semifinalists is a hurricane of tactics and emotions atypical to the ones they have faced. Each match is different no matter the titles awarded at these biggest of tournaments, no matter the spin on yet another ball speeding their way.
Serena Williams, the 23-time major champion, is naturally the favorite, even though she’s seeded number 11. There’s no reason why she shouldn’t be the top pick, the one to finally match the record of 24 titles set by Margaret Court, although the American hasn’t won a tournament since January of 2017 at the Australian Open.
“I believe in myself,” Williams told the press, following her squeaker of a victory over the relentless Alison Riske on Tuesday.
Can her belief be battered? Can it be washed aside enough that she doubts she can be saved by some element of her great game: the best serve in women’s tennis; power as intense as a locomotive; plus a fierce competitive nature that seems to miraculously soar at just the right moments?
It’s all up for grabs, no matter the consensus. Atypical weather. Atypical Grand Slam semifinals.
Barbora Strycova will be across the net from Serena on Thursday.
The Czech Republic native has never been to a Grand Slam semifinal before. She’s 33 and unseeded. It’s now or never, which also applies to her opponent. Chances are, at least in the women’s game, that the next time a major tournament rolls around, other players will stand where they stand on the eve of another semifinal. That’s the way the women’s came has gone since 2015. That’s when Serena was barreling along and expected to take the biggest prize in tennis — a calendar-year Grand Slam — but was disrupted when Italian Roberta Vinci upset Serena in the semifinals of the U.S. Open. Flavia Pennetta went on to win her lone major, leave tennis a few months later, and marry Fabio Fognini, whose record has soared since then … go figure.
That benchmark loss by Serena to Vinci provoked a torrent of change: Angelique Kerber emerged, and Garbine Muguruza, Jelena Ostapenko, Sloane Stephens, Caroline Wozniacki, Simona Halep, Naomi Osaka, and Ashleigh Barty, the reigning Roland Garros winner, formed a line of unexpected slam champions.
So, don’t think that scene isn’t possible on Thursday.
Strycova dismantled Johanna Konta Tuesday. The British powerhouse crumbled in the final set as Strycova did her best imitation of a ninja warrior to close out the match, 7-6(5), 6-1.
That Strycova we witnessed Tuesday could, in her 53rd Grand Slam appearance, deftly move this slower-version of Serena — a version unlike what we knew a couple years ago — to uncomfortable court positions. Strycova’s style of play could foul up too many of Serena’s shots and make her doubt, although the statistics and head-to-head totals will downplay the possibility of that outcome.
“Atypical” is possible in this match.
Just revisit the U.S. Open final between Serena and Naomi Osaka.
Talk about a hurricane. Serena is still not completely over that match, in which she was penalized a game and couldn’t compose herself enough and overcome the hurt she felt. She even apologized to Osaka in Harper’s Bazaar, its July 9 online edition, where she wrote a personal essay of depth and revelation:
“I finally realized that there was only one way for me to move forward. It was time for me to apologize to the person who deserved it the most.”
Williams did not come right out and say “I’m sorry” or “I apologize” to Osaka. Rather she spilled praise on “another black female athlete,” which elicited a response from Osaka that reportedly made Serena cry:
“People can misunderstand anger for strength because they can’t differentiate between the two,” Osaka said. “No one has stood up for themselves the way you have and you need to continue trailblazing.”
Thursday is Serena’s opportunity to trail-blaze, again, even though the term seems wrong for a moment that has been repeated 11 times. Yet patterns are there to disrupt, and atypical seems the norm.