The plaudits go to Simona Halep, the charming Romanian who won her country’s first Wimbledon singles title on Saturday.
But the story is Serena Williams. For the third consecutive time since returning to the game after giving birth, Williams was run off the court – quite literally, this time – in a Grand Slam final.
A few questions must now be asked of the greatest women’s player in history. She’ll be 38 in two months time. Serious injury has become a regular feature in her career.
How many more chances at this can she reasonably expect? And is she at risk of leaving her career by the Muhammad Ali route – a once unbeatable champion continuing at it past the point he/she is capable of winning the big one?
Each one of these losses erodes Williams’ aura. More worrying, the template for beating Williams is now set – make her move around. Williams doesn’t like that.
The American entered a heavy favourite. She had several massive advantages over Halep – power, experience, the fact that she’d won 9 of their 10 career encounters.
One wonderful run through the French Open aside, Halep has a reputation as a skilled operator prone to meltdowns and incapable of rising to occasions.
And yet the match was effectively over after six minutes, three games and two Halep breaks. It ended 6-2, 6-2. The whole thing took only 56 minutes.
Afterward, Williams was forced to perform the excruciating duties of the runner-up - retreat to her chair, waxen smile plastered her face, try not to look crestfallen.
“That was a little bit deer in the headlights for me,” Williams said brightly in her courtside interview.
It’s a remarkable admission for any player at this stage. It is doubly so for one so accomplished. Just hearing her say it out loud makes you wonder where her head’s at.
If Williams was well below her best, Halep was at hers.
“There are literally five matches in your life when you are in the zone,” analyst John McEnroe said as it ended. “I guarantee that was one of them.”
In her on-court interview, Halep was asked if she had ever played better.
“Never,” she said.
Halep deserves all the praise, but we know how this works. Even when she loses, Williams is the star of the tennis show.
The Serena Williams of four or five years ago would have found a way to disrupt Halep’s plan. She’d have imposed herself, even on an opponent having the match of her life.
From Angelique Kerber at last year’s Wimbledon final (6-3, 6-3); to Naomi Osaka at the 2018 U.S. Open final (6-2, 6-4) to this latest lopsided disappointment, this current Williams can no longer do that.
The only new part of Williams’ game opening up is an ability to make averagely great players look like the old Serena Williams.
Though Williams never had elite agility, she seems slower every time you see her. She always preferred using her power and wit to control points from a relatively static position. But facing the best opposition, she no longer has that luxury.
A lot was made of how unlikely her finals appearance was here, given that she’d spent most of the season injured. Less was made of the fact that she didn’t face a top-10 opponent until she ran into Halep.
Unlike all the journeywomen she’d run into until that point, Halep was not in the mood to succumb to brain cramp. The Romanian made only three unforced errors the entire match – a near-perfect performance. Williams had 26, and many more forced ones besides.
From the off, Halep’s horizontal motion was dizzying. She looked like she was doing wind sprints.
Williams must’ve been tired out just watching her, because she could not rouse herself to move far from her position dead in the centre of the court.
At one point, a lout in the crowd screamed “WAKE UP” at Williams.
“I definitely wasn’t sleeping,” she joked later.
It didn’t look that way.
Again and again, Halep fetched the unfetchable ball, put it back into play and watched Williams bang it into the net. By the end, Williams was giving up anything that hadn’t been knocked straight at her.
This was a contest between an immovable object against an irresistible force, and not in the good way.
Williams has tried a bunch of rhetorical routes after major losses over the last couple of years – anger, defiance, breeziness. On Saturday, she seemed oddly detached. She gave all the credit to Halep, which is both sporting and unhelpful. She denied nervousness or injury played any role, which means this was a simple failure to perform.
If so, this match was both won and lost in equal measure by the two participants. How does that happen to a Serena Williams? Only Williams would know. She wasn’t saying.
Per the usual, there were a lot of questions about Margaret Court’s Grand Slam title record (24) and whether Williams (23) thinks she’ll get there? Soon? Ever? Never?
“I don’t know,” Williams said. “I don’t think about it.”
Maybe she should start.