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For Simona Halep, the first Wimbledon final of her career. For Serena Williams, the 11th such appearance she’ll be making here at the All England Club. The big-game experience and pedigree that separates these two women may be significant, but make no doubt: this is a fitting final for tennis’s most prestigious Grand Slam.
It sees the coming together of two players who have assuredly improved with each passing match. Both made sluggish starts to the tournament, but after their displays in the semi-finals – in which they comfortably despatched of their respective opponents in two quick sets – it’s clear to see that Halep and Williams are hitting their peak when it matters most.
The American had ominously declared ahead of her victory over Barbora Strycova that, after repeated injury concerns in recent months, her form was returning to its best. And so it showed against the rather helpless Czech.
Before the hour mark was up, the world No 54 had been comprehensively beaten by Williams. Her performance was dynamic, clinical, relentless. The power at her disposal – best showcased in her serves, which frequently surpassed 110mph – was finely balanced by the technical prowess and soft touch she showed at the net. Unafraid to venture forward when necessary, and utterly dominant in the baseline exchanges, the world No 10 had an answer for every one of Strycova’s tricks and flicks.
Halep, meanwhile, looks to have finally found her form on grass. Following Tuesday’s quarter-final victory over Shuai Zhang, the Romanian announced that she had discovered a love for the green stuff after years of struggle on the surface. “I’m a different person, everything changed,” she said. “I have a lot of experience, I’m more confident. I love grass – it’s the first time when I say that.”
If the win over Zhang was Halep’s light-bulb moment, the victory against Elina Svitolina was confirmation of her reformation. Meeting her first seeded opponent of the competition, Halep blew Svitolina away. Much can be made of the Ukrainian’s shortcomings in that match – her inability to diversify, her lack of intensity – but to do so would be a disservice to the performance rolled out by Halep.
As with her previous wins, the Romanian’s athleticism and formidable returns – among the best in the women’s game – made the difference. Her ability to repackage and repurpose Svitolina’s shots took the wind out of the world No 8’s game, leaving her bereft of ideas to change the course of the match. Coupled with ability to chase nearly every ball down, as well as her willingness to experiment – something she’s been reluctant to do on grass before – Halep’s approach was virtually unplayable.
The mental fortitude she’s exhibited across the past fortnight is further testament to the fine tuning she’s made to her game. “I started to learn how to keep the things simple because I overcomplicated everything in my head,” she said after her semi-final win. “I was thinking too much. Sometimes I had too many options how to play, and I didn’t pick the right one in the right moment.
“I was working with a psychologist almost two years now. Also she tried to make me understand myself and to accept everything I do wrong on court, and to work on those things, which helped me a lot as well.”
As such, Halep holds no fear now in coming up against Williams, a seven-time champion here at Wimbledon. “Now I feel stronger mentally facing her,” she added. “We will see what is going to happen.”
Indeed, Saturday’s showdown marks an intriguing collision between two very different playing styles. Williams is far more bombastic in her approach: thumping baseline shots, ferocious first serves, regular approaches to the net. It’s this last quality in particular which has come on leaps and bounds at this year’s Championships. The 37-year-old admits that her foray into the mixed doubles with Andy Murray has helped.
“I kept telling you guys I thought the doubles would help me,” she said on Thursday. “I really think it did. I don’t attack the net that much. I tried to and I want to.
“I was really keen to play mixed here. I really feel like it helped me, not just for today and this event, but hopefully it will help me just in the future.”
In contrast to the fearless abandon that runs dangerously throughout Williams’ game, Halep is far more defensive-minded. Running and returning is her bread and butter, her raison d’être. Her performances are rooted in this ability to get back the ball, no matter what. This provides the framework for the attacking aspects of her game, as seen with her clinical backhand which has punished opponent after opponent at these Championships. Exploiting the geometry of the court to her advantage, Halep’s angled winners have inflicted plenty of damage. But against Williams she faces an altogether different challenge.
On the back of her superior record against the Romanian, grass form and Grand Slam experience, the American is the favourite for this meeting. But there’s no doubt Halep will be a tough nut to crack. And such is the nature of their two styles, it may be the case that Saturday’s final will be ultimately determined by whoever blinks first.
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