Sometimes it doesn’t pay to beat Serena Williams too badly on a big stage. Maria Sharapova did it in the Wimbledon final in 2004, and Serena has been making her pay for it ever since. Simona Halep beat Serena by the still-stunning scores of 6-0, 6-2 at the 2014 WTA Finals in Singapore, and Serena has been making her pay for it ever since. She has won her last six matches against Halep, including two at Grand Slam events.
On Thursday Serena gave a different reason for her ability to turn the tables and not let them turn back: She never lets her guard down again.
“I think the biggest key with our matches is the loss that I had in Singapore,” Serena said when she was asked about facing Halep. “I never forgot it. She played unbelievable. That makes me know that level she played at, she can get there again. So I have to be better than that.”
Judging by the way Halep played her semifinal against Elina Svitolina, Serena would be right to bring an abundance of caution to this match. Halep, who says she is moving and hitting with more confidence than she ever has on grass, put on a furiously focused performance, playing circles around an opponent who had won three of their last four meetings. Halep served well, returned well, created openings with her ground strokes and maintained that often-precarious balance between calmness and aggression all the way through.
And that was exactly what Serena did in her own semifinal.
“I was calm today,” Serena said. “It’s a day-to-day basis with me. You all know that. I’m far from perfect.”
Against Barbora Strycova, she was as close to perfect as she’s been since her return to the tour last year. She won 24 of 27 first-serve points and 13 of 16 points at net, and was four of five on break points. She won more than half of Strycova’s service points, so we know her return was sharp.
Grand Slam finals are different from Grand Slam semifinals, of course. Serena has lost her last two, while Halep lost her first three before winning at Roland Garros last spring. The last two matches between Serena and Halep went to a third set, and this could be an even closer and more entertaining contest.
As always on grass, a lot will be decided by the first two shots in any rally. How dominant will Serena’s serve be? She made 60 percent of her first serves against Strycova; she’ll want a higher percentage in the final. How will Halep’s own serve hold up, and how sharp will Serena be on her return? Given the chance, Serena will likely be able to tee off on Halep’s second deliveries. And who will hold up better mentally if they build a lead? Each has dealt with nerves while trying to cross Grand Slam finish lines in the past.
Coming back to what Serena said about how she approaches her encounters with Halep: “I have to be better than that.” If anyone can take a player’s best and surpass it, it’s her.