Navratilova: Serena knows Simona is not going to beat herself
Martina Navratilova considers the challenge posed by Simona Halep to Serena Williams's quest for a 24th singles Slam in her wtatennis.com preview of the 2019 Wimbledon ladies' singles final.
July 12, 2019
Playing for history can be hard for an athlete. It can weigh heavily on you, with the pressure growing and growing. But it is history - and the quest for a record-equaling 24th Grand Slam singles title - that has kept Serena Williams hungry for tennis.
That hunger, that desire, has brought her to Saturday's Wimbledon final against Romania's Simona Halep, which is the American's match to win or lose. Ever since Serena returned to tennis last year, after taking a break to becoming a mother, the carrot has been the thought of equalling Margaret Court's all-time record.
Read more: 23 and counting - Serena's singles Slam titles
This will be the third time that Serena has had a match for a 24th major, after losing to Angelique Kerber in last year's Wimbledon final and to Naomi Osaka in last year's US Open final, but right now she is playing as well as she ever has. Serena is so great on the grass that Centre Court at Wimbledon is almost like a second home for her.
If Serena is healthy on this stuff, she's so hard to beat. No one else has Serena's ability to play herself into shape, as in tennis shape, during a Grand Slam tournament, and here she has been helped by competing in the mixed doubles with Andy Murray, which gave her a few more hours on the match court.
In her singles semifinal against Barbora Strycova, Serena was playing so well that you couldn't just see that quality, you could hear it, too. When Serena is getting hold of the ball and hitting the ball cleanly, when it is popping off the strings, her shots even sound different.
Read more: Serena Williams soars into Wimbledon final
In her last two Grand Slam finals against Kerber and Osaka, Serena has faced a couple of uncomfortable opponents, but I feel as though Simona is a more comfortable adversary for her. But Serena knows that she has to beat Simona. Simona's not going to beat herself.
If Serena wants to win, she has to keep on playing in the same way she did in her semifinal. She's doing everything well at the moment, including moving well, which allows her to get into position properly, cutting down on the unforced errors.
Serena can also push opponents and have them rocking on their heels without taking any chances. She doesn't have to hit her shots into dangerous spots on the court. If she hits the ball safely to within six feet of the sideline and the baseline, that's still a forcing shot because of the pace of her ball.
She is making her opponent move, and the ball is traveling so quickly that they don't have time to get there and get set. It's easier for Serena to have opponents on the defensive. When another player swings at 80 per cent of their potential, and Serena swings at 80 per cent of her potential, Serena's ball is 10 per cent faster.
On top of that, Serena never hits the same ball twice; she always has her opponent moving rather than waiting for the ball.
When Serena is playing well, she jumps on your serve, so you're on the defensive. It's hard to get into rallies with her. And when you can't get into rallies with Serena, she will beat you, because she has that much more power.
Read more: Rivalry Record - Serena Williams vs Simona Halep
If Simona, who is playing in her first Wimbledon final, is going to beat Serena, she needs to serve well and really mix it up. I would throw in some body serves. Serena likes to step into the return. But you can jam her with a body serve, which she doesn't like. Serena stands close to the baseline for her return, which makes the body serve more effective because she has less time to get out of the way. That takes away the angle and the power.
I would also advise Simona - though I know this is going to be a tall order - to play down the line rather than going crosscourt. With crosscourt, you wait for the ball. Everyone cheats crosscourt, but Serena particularly. When you hit crosscourt to Serena she doesn't have to move - she's already there. When you hit down the line to her, she has to move to the ball.
Simona has to get the first strike because when she's on the defensive, Serena will get closer to the baseline, and it will become that much harder to go down the line. The ball will be getting there too quickly, and Simona will be pushed back, making it harder to time the shot and change the direction.
Read more: Halep solves Svitolina, surges into first Wimbledon final
Above all, Simona needs to stay with Serena. Serena is an amazing front runner. When she gets ahead, she relaxes and doesn't feel the pressure as much.
I was 37, getting on for 38, when I played in my last Grand Slam final, at the 1994 Wimbledon, but Serena, who turns 38 in September, has now beaten my record and on Saturday will become the oldest woman to appear in a major singles final in the Open Era.
Serena is a much younger 37-year-old than I was. When I was her age, I had played many more matches than her, so she's much fresher in the legs. And the way she plays, the points don't last long.
If Serena doesn't win her 24th Grand Slam title on Saturday, she will have another chance at the US Open this summer, and then some more opportunities next year as well. There's no reason why she can't be back here at Wimbledon next summer, when she'll be almost 39.
There are only two things that can stop her: a lack of desire and Father Time. And those two factors don't seem to be bothering her right now.