After Simona Halep whaled a 106mph ace to take a 4-0 lead in the women’s final at Wimbledon, Serena Williams’ shoulders slumped and her eyes fixed forlornly on the grass beneath her feet. In just 11 disbelieving minutes, her hopes of a record-equalling 24th grand slam had been shattered. In the commentary box, John McEnroe gulped “in shock”. The crowd on Centre Court held its breath with the type of muted awe usually reserved for an act of God. Before their eyes, so abruptly, a throne had crumbled.
In reality, it was more so the cracking of our own illusions. Back then, Williams was already 37 years old and had lost her last two grand slam finals. But when a legacy stands as tall as hers and has so often defied logic, it can be hard to acknowledge such reason. We are always yearning for one last fairy tale, a final nostalgic roar that holds back the tide of youth. But after Halep flawlessly closed out victory inside an hour, Williams was more resigned to that fact than many. “No matter which way you look at it, we’re probably not going to be out here the next three, four or five years,” she said of herself and Roger Federer, who lost the men’s final in a titanic back-and-forth battle with Novak Djokovic. “The time to see us is now.”
But then that world was lost in the pandemic’s haze, this two-year period that seems to have aged us tenfold. Federer has undergone two knee surgeries. Williams has played just five tournaments this year and last reached a final of any description in January 2020 in an under-the-radar warm-up for the Australian Open. The time may well have passed, even if nobody can quite accept it, including the cold and calculating bookmakers who still make Williams the favourite.
That in itself is a triumph of Williams’ mind over matter. In an emotional scene in the HBO documentary ‘Being Serena’, which charts her journey into motherhood in 2017, Williams breaks down when reconciling with the decision to stop breastfeeding so she can get back to competitive fitness. Ever since, the sacrifices she has made to return to this level have accumulated, the extra margins squeezed in hope of clawing herself over the line one last time to no avail. After so many agonising near-misses, to achieve that long-awaited goal of matching Margaret Court’s record would validate the toil with ecstasy and relief. It is also the least Williams deserves as an icon for a generation, but sport rarely shows sympathy.
The scar tissue of her last defeat at Wimbledon, though, is at least one hurdle that has been removed. Just minutes ahead of the draw on Friday, Halep announced a calf injury would prevent her from defending her title. Naomi Osaka, who denied Williams in such a baying atmosphere at the 2018 US Open, leaves a large void, too, as she continues to take time away from the spotlight. Their absences will make the task of every other competitor easier, but there will be no trouncing wins. While the Big Three have long kept the men’s game in a stranglehold, the women’s draw at Wimbledon will be subject to typically volatile changes in power and few would dare to make a confident prediction.
The greatest claim probably lies with Ashleigh Barty, the world No 1 whose style is tailor-made for Wimbledon’s slick courts, but the Australian, who could meet Williams in the semi-finals, has never made it past the fourth round. Aryna Sabalenka has all the tools in her arsenal but is yet to prove she can overcome the mental strain of a grand slam. Iga Swiatek admitted she has “no expectations” for the grass-court season. The field has rarely been so open. Perhaps, then, it is primed for a member of the older guard, who knows what it takes to win. It is now a decade since Petra Kvitova lifted the trophy for the first time. After recovering from the stab wound that threatened to end her career, she takes good form on grass into Wimbledon and will be a fan favourite among the crowd.
But with so many unanswered questions, the mind starts to wonder: is this just a random scattering of chance or are the stars beginning to align? In 2019, Williams likened her whirlwind defeat to a “deer caught in headlights”. What’s been clear for several years now is that her rivals are no longer stranded by any fear factor. Where Williams once had an aura of invincibility, her opponents can spot a stray weakness. But if at 39, she can bend the hands of Father Time back to her will for a fortnight, it would be a victory that lasts for the ages.
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