With one more win at Wimbledon, Serena Williams would tie Margaret Court, the only player in history with 24 Grand Slam singles titles. In Saturday’s final, the 37-year-old Williams will battle Simona Halep, who won the French Open last year but has never won a Wimbledon title. Williams appears to have shaken off the rust of earlier this season and seems, at last, to have returned to her perch as the most dominant player in the history of tennis.
There’s just one problem: Williams’s incredible serve is still a little shaky.
“I don’t know if I’ve had my best serves this tournament,” Williams said. “I’m just now starting to use my legs again.”
On Thursday, Williams beat Barbora Strycova, a 33-year-old who had never reached a Grand Slam singles semifinal. Strycova, who has a fine track record at doubles, reaching the semifinals in each major event, couldn’t control Williams, who won 6-1, 6-2.
But Williams hasn’t played anyone like the 27-year-old Halep. She’s great at receiving serves and, at times, pouncing on them, too. Halep has won 53 percent of return points — and that includes first and second serves. Williams, known as an all-time returner, has won 43 percent.
Halep also sounds eager and hungry. “I feel stronger mentally facing her,” she said. “We will see what is going to happen.”
Williams has yet to play against a top 15 player in this tournament. According to the WTA, Williams’s opponents so far had an average rank of 75.2, and only two of them were seeded (No. 30 Carla Suarez Navarro in the fourth round and No. 18 Julia Goerges in the third). A similar scenario unfolded a year ago, when Williams coasted to the finals with her average opponent ranked even lower at 80, until she faced Angelique Kerber in the final. Kerber, who has an attacking style similar to Halep’s, beat Williams 6-3, 6-3.
Williams needs to serve as well as possible to tie Court’s record, and so far, her serve has seemed vulnerable. Throughout the event, Williams has won 54.2 percent of second-serve points, which is solid and in line with her career numbers at Wimbledon. But the first serve counts the most, and Williams has not nearly been her best. She has won 74 percent of her first serves in her six matches. That’s lower than for all of her Wimbledon wins; her previous low at a Wimbledon in which she won was 75.8 percent in 2003. Her share of first serves won was much higher for her most recent match, at 89 percent, so perhaps she has started to find her footing.
At her best, Williams’s serves have been efficient and brutal. In 2010, she won 87.5 percent of the points for which she landed her first serve, the highest at Wimbledon in her career. (That year, Williams hit 23.5 percent of her total points served as aces.) Williams didn’t lose a set that year (she also lost no sets in 2002). In 2012, Williams had stats nearly as impressive, hitting 20.9 percent of her total points served as aces. That’s the only time Williams hit more than 100 serves as aces (102 in all) at Wimbledon.
Williams has played Halep 11 times, including three at a Slam. Halep has won just once, in 2014. But she played Williams close at the Australian Open this year and won a set from her in the 2011 Wimbledon, back in their first matchup. Williams knows this will be her biggest test, and she knows that Halep is ready.
“The biggest key with our matches is the loss that I had. I never forgot it. She played unbelievable,” Williams said. “That makes me know that level she played at, she can get there again. So I have to be better than that.”