When Serena Williams left Wimbledon 12 months ago as the runner-up, falling just short in only her fourth tournament back after maternity leave as she attempted to draw level with Margaret Court’s all-time record of 24 grand slam singles titles, it seemed that by the time she returned this year she would have matched Court’s count if not overtaken it to become the game’s undisputed greatest.
But chasing history took its toll, just as it had in 2015 when, two wins from a calendar slam and Steffi Graf’s Open era record of 22 majors, she collapsed under the not so considerable challenge of Roberta Vinci in the US Open semi-finals. Flushing Meadows was also the scene of her infamous meltdown in the final against Naomi Osaka last year, which left her unwilling to play for rest of the season and, as she admitted this week, needing therapy.
Williams returned for the Australian Open, where she beat today’s opponent, Simona Halep, in a superb last-16 encounter, before losing in the next round. By this point not only was her mind aching but so was her body. A knee injury contributed to her early defeat at the French Open last month and she arrived at Wimbledon seriously short of matches, having played only 12 all season.
But this has been a restorative fortnight for the seven-times champion. She has appeared calmer and more content as the rounds have gone by, her game no doubt sharpened by her Murena double act with Andy Murray. The indication in her 59-minute semi-final demolition of Barbora Strycova was that she is no longer crippled but inspired by what her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, calls the “ultimate” piece of history, the reason she returned to tennis so quickly after a life-threatening labour and what drives her to continue playing at the age of 37.
While Williams is chasing history, Halep, who has battled her own emotions over the years, has her own motivations. Since winning her first grand slam at the French Open last year after three final defeats and a reputation as a big-match choker, the counter-punching Romanian has lost the world No 1 ranking and has not been beyond the last eight at a major. This is a first Wimbledon final for Halep but, given who she’s facing over the net, she can play this match without pressure or expectation.
However, as the great Billie Jean King once said: “Pressure is a privilege – it only comes to those who earn it.” This match will be played in Williams’s mind as much as it will be on court.
The mental battle begins at: 2pm BST