These are master manicurists who might even have muttered to themselves about how that was all right, because they weren’t too fond of players who treated it like a municipal ice rink on beginners’ bump night.
But that was all forgotten as the Romanian delivered a winner’s speech which charmed everyone at the All-England Club – staff, top blazers, Royal Box, famous actors, past champs – just a few minutes after delivering a winner’s performance which simply blew away probably the greatest past champ of them all, as Serena Williams acknowledged when the prizegiving carpet was rolled out. Halep, she said, played “out of her mind”.
Williams couldn’t live with her, couldn’t stop her chasing lost causes and turning them into impossible winners – none of which, by the way, required sliding. And maybe now, at 37, she can’t stop the passing of time.
“I think I have the feeling,” the previously grass-averse Halep had said before the final. “I feel stable on the legs.” That should have been a warning, although few would have foreseen this 6-2, 6-2 demolition, which required just 56 minutes.
Centre Court would have wanted the match to last longer. They thought this would be a proper contest and perhaps a classic. History-chaser vs history chaser. The girl bidding to become the first Romanian to win at Wimbledon after all the vainful efforts of Ille Nastase and Ion Tiriac. The mom striving to become the first mother to win since Evonne Cawley in 1980. More than that, the oldest ladies’ champ since Charlotte “Chattie” Sterry in 1908. More than that, the legend bidding to draw level with Margaret Court’s 24 Grand Slams, although Williams’ titles have come in a much more competitive era so she could present a good case for already being the all-time best.
But right at the start Williams suffered a double break of serve and never recovered so it was the 27-year-old Halep – in front of the Duchesses of Cambridge and Sussex, Hollywood star Woody Harrelson and Theresa May, enjoying a pleasant Saturday afternoon duty in the sunshine before stepping down – who hoisted the Venus Rosewater Dish then acknowledged Tiriac’s inspiration and her parents’ encouragement back in the Black Sea port of Constanta: “When I said aged ten that I wanted to play tennis my mother said, ‘Well, you’d better go and win Wimbledon.’ So the day comes…”
When the day began, just after 2pm, the bulk of the crowd backing Williams, Halep returned the first serve so timidly immediately you feared for her. Before winning her first Slam last year, she had a reputation for being a “choker”. Post-Slam, the major achieved, she had some questioning her ambition. Afterwards she admitted to nerves. “My stomach was not so well before the match,” she said. But these were good nerves, positive nerves.
It was Williams who committed the unforced errors – in total 26 next to only three from Halep. Williams’ serve, which had powered her to the final, was failing her. Meanwhile her footwork – although she was never renowned for her speed – seemed to have given up the ghost. Williams can win games almost from a static position on the baseline but she was going to struggle to beat Halep that way – this much was clear from the player’s first mad dash as she whizzed over the lawn like she has grass floors in her house and eats nothing but grass stew.
In the sixth game, 1-4 behind, Williams began with a perfectly-constructed point, finished with a perfectly-executed drop-shot. She got to deuce on the Halep serve, and after too many shots which nestled in the net or banged the back wall, she finally found her range with the forehand to give herself break point. When she couldn’t take it she studied the ground for several seconds. She tried again and thumped the kind of cross-courter which had seen off everyone else in the competition, but not Halep who scampered and retrieved and wowed and hurt, the latter all belonging to the heavily-garlanded Williams. It seemed like a key moment, and even the latter’s most fervent admirers couldn’t fail to be impressed by Halep’s all-action style.
Time and time again Halep fished a ball from the back of beyond or way out wide. This was turning into one of those dream performances – “The best of my career,” she admitted later. Williams, still coming up short or cannoning the ball at the line judges, did manage to save one set point with a forehand from her illustrious back-catalogue. But when she tried to find the same spot again she missed.
Williams simply couldn’t afford to start the second set as badly but, serving, a Halep return fired right at her feet merely illustrated her lack of mobility as her opponent continued her tenacious terrier impression.
Williams might as well have swapped her racket for a doggie ball-launcher for all the luck she was having in shaking off a player she’d dubbed “that little powerhouse”.
At the end Centre Court hailed a vibrant and vivacious new champion.
The Duchess of Sussex, a big Serena fan, seemed stunned, like Williams had been for much of the match, then joined in the acclaim.