Saturday will mark the 11th Wimbledon singles final for Serena Williams. It will be the first for Simona Halep. Saturday at Centre Court will mark Serena’s latest bid for a 24th major title. It will represent Halep’s first try at her second major championship.
One player is playing for history at the highest level of the sport at age 37, still possessing her fastball and trying to reach that one last milestone everyone has discussed for the past two and a half years. The other player is trying to win a second major, which isn’t nearly as many as 24, but which transforms a reputation almost as much as winning a first major.
This match means everything for both Serena and Simona. We can acknowledge, though, that one player has been here many times before and is expected to prevail, owning a 9-1 head-to-head record.
Given this larger reality, it is completely understandable to say — or think — that Simona Halep should play freely, with nothing to lose. To be sure, she shouldn’t carry too much pressure into this match. Serena bears that weight and all the emotions associated with it. Serena doesn’t have anything to prove to the outside world, but she always wants to prove something to herself. Even though tennis historians will readily acknowledge that Margaret Court’s 24 major titles aren’t nearly as impressive as Serena’s 23 (for a bucketful of reasons we don’t have to discuss — you can ask me at @mzemek if you feel the need to), it remains that winning “24” would cross off one of the last items on Serena’s Tennis Bucket List.
Halep didn’t do as well at Roland Garros this year as she had hoped. Making the Wimbledon final emerges as a pleasant surprise — not a huge surprise (Simona is a good tennis player on all surfaces, period), but not quite something one expected with total confidence before this tournament began.
You could certainly argue that Halep is playing with house money, and that she should cast off her burdens. I can’t offer a strong counterpoint to that claim. Halep should relish this moment and view it as an opportunity, not a chore. This is a gift, this final, a chance to do something special. It is not a grim task to be viewed with worry and overwhelming anxiety. Yes, Halep should allow herself the kindness of playing this match with joy. I agree.
Yet, that attitude — play freely, fling away one’s burdens, see what happens — can suggest that a player should take huge swings at all times and play low-percentage tennis in the hope of victory.
That’s where Halep has to play this match with some wisdom, not just joy and freedom. There are limits to the notion of playing without pressure.
Sam Querrey — a huge server and big hitter — had no chance against Rafael Nadal in the men’s quarterfinals unless he went for broke on every shot. Querrey could not stay with Nadal in long rallies, and he had the flamethrower serve which could potentially (conceptually) take the racquet out of Nadal’s hand. Querrey’s package of strengths (and weaknesses) meant that it made total sense for him to play zero-margin tennis, like a poker player who bets everything on one hand. All-in. Querrey had to play that way.
Simona Halep is not Sam Querrey.
She doesn’t have the huge serve. She isn’t Petra Kvitova, who can snap her fingers and end points with one violent groundstroke. That’s not her game, and it never will be. Serena similarly carries thunderbolts. Simona is not so much a thunderstorm, but the wind: carving out all sorts of directions, twisting and turning and changing direction and being very swift. Subtle and sometimes powerful, Halep doesn’t walk up to opponents and punch them in the face. Kvitova and Serena do that. Halep uses opponents’ force against them. She rope-a-dopes (as Muhammad Ali used to do in his boxing career) and ambushes opponents.
This brings us to the central tension point of Saturday’s final.
Halep can’t try to hit Serena off the court. Wimbledon is won by great servers, but it is also won by great movers. Angelique Kerber — the mover — beat Serena the server last year. Halep can certainly look at that tape and gain some pointers. Beyond that, Simona needs to realize that Serena has continuously missed the toughest players in the last three rounds of the draw.
Serena could have played Kerber in the fourth round. Instead: Suarez-Navarro.
Serena could have played World No. 1 Ash Barty or top-15 Belinda Bencic in the quarterfinals. Instead: Alison Riske.
Serena could have played Sloane Stephens OR Jo Konta OR Kvitova in the semifinals. Instead: Barbora Strycova.
This is not too different from last year, when Serena played Camila Giorgi (like Alison Riske, a woman who was playing in her first major quarterfinal) in the quarters, and Julia Goerges (like Barbora Strycova, a woman playing in her first major semifinal) in the semis. Serena got a mostly favorable set of opponents, but then, when going up against Kerber in the final, the step up in weight class mattered.
This dynamic can work for Simona as well.
Look, we all know that if Serena plays her best, or at least, SERVES her best, she will almost certainly win. It would take an enormous effort from Simona to prevail against an in-form Serena. (Simona almost did this in the 2016 U.S. Open quarterfinals, the best match the two women have played.)
The theme of this match is provided by the notion of standing at a door.
Simona Halep is on the doorstep of history. She is on the verge of a hugely significant and transformative title. She should play freely, but not carelessly. With timely aggression, but not wild aggression.
Simona needs to make Serena feel her presence from the other side of the court. Simona should certainly try to land big strikes when she has the opening, but more fundamentally, Simona has to ask Serena many questions, playing the physical kind of match Serena hasn’t had to play in the previous six rounds of this tournament (with the possible exception of Riske).
If Serena makes some mistakes, Simona can make her work and create stressful situations for the 23-time major champion, much as Kerber did a year ago. If Serena can’t answer the questions, she will open the door for Simona.
Standing at the door, Halep — the first Romanian woman to play a Wimbledon singles final — can step through the portal and into an even bigger space in tennis history.