The last time we saw Serena Williams in a Grand Slam final, she was beating her sister Venus for the Australian Open crown in January 2017. A lot has happened to Serena over the nearly 18 months since, but despite all the challenges, she’s back in another final — this time with a chance to tie Margaret Court for the most slam titles of any tennis player in history.
Williams’s latest remarkable comeback (and there have been quite a few) only reaffirms for the umpteenth time that she belongs on the short list of history’s greatest athletes. But this time around, she got a little help.
A rash of upsets cleared out nearly every top contender in Williams’s path at the All England Club: By the third round, the list of upset victims included top seed Simona Halep, defending champ Garbiñe Muguruza, second-seeded Caroline Wozniacki, U.S. Open champion Sloane Stephens, two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova and Serena’s older sister Venus, a five-time Wimbledon champ. As a result, Williams will end up facing only two seeded opponents all tournament long: No. 13 Julia Goerges in the semifinals and No. 11 Angelique Kerber in the final. In her 23 slam victories so far, the only time she faced so few seeded opponents was the 2002 French Open — and even then, the two seeded players she had to beat were her second-seeded sister and the No. 1 seed, Jennifer Capriati.
We can roughly quantify the difficulty of Serena’s path in each of her major wins (plus this potential one in London) by assigning point values to her opponents based on their seeds: Since 32 players are seeded for each Grand Slam,1 the No. 1 seed is worth 32 points, No. 2 is worth 31, and so forth until we reach the 32nd seed (worth 1 point); unseeded players are worth 0 points. Adding up the point values of all her opponents in a tournament gives us a sense of how stiff Serena’s competition was on the way to each of her major wins, and this year’s Wimbledon will have easily been her easiest path to a title so far, assuming she prevails over Kerber (she’s about a 1-to-2 betting favorite in Las Vegas):
|Year||Slam won||Age*||Seed||R128||R64||R32||R16||QF||SF||F||Opp. Seed Pts|
It’s foolish to give the draw all the credit for Williams’s presence in the finals, though. We learned a long time ago not to underestimate her, no matter the competition.2 Without the upsets, it’s very possible that she would have made it anyway — especially since, during the course of the tournament, Williams has notably raised her game, particularly on her serve.
She struggled some in her first-round win over Arantxa Rus, who ranks just 105th in the world: Williams got 58 percent of her first serves in — winning 76 percent of those points. But by her Tuesday quarterfinal against world No. 52 Camila Giorgi, Williams’s serve was back to form: She got in 71 percent of her first serves and won 81 percent of those points. And in Thursday’s semifinal, Williams won a whopping 87 percent of her first-serve points against world No. 13 Goerges.
It certainly hasn’t hurt that Williams’s serve speed has also steadily crept up since the start of the tournament. In her opening match, her first serves were averaging 103 mph. On Thursday, her first serve averaged 107 mph — and her fastest serve topped out at 119 mph. At the same time, Serena’s unforced errors have plummeted. She opened Wimbledon with 29 errors against Rus, but she committed only nine in her three sets against Giorgi — and just seven in two sets against Goerges.
Now Williams is on the verge of making even more history, in perhaps her most impressive comeback of all. All it took was a little luck of the draw, some sharper ball-striking and a ton of perseverance to come back from a year spent wrestling with bigger concerns than tennis and put herself on the path to a potentially triumphant return in her favorite Grand Slam stomping grounds.