The view from Australia is that a “crazed” woman is on the loose in the polite surroundings of the All England Club. This is how Serena Williams’ training regime is being described Down Under, which may be connected to the fact that a long-standing Aussie sports record is in serious peril.
The score at the moment stands at Margaret Court 24, that demented Williams woman 23. This is the number of grand-slam singles titles each has won, and if the American beats Simona Halep in tomorrow’s Wimbledon final she will draw level.
Who would bet against her? You might have to be crazed to do that. Williams demolished Barbora Strycova in the semi-final and, while sometimes playing down the significance of the magical 24 in the past, she admitted it was on her mind before this match.
“I thought about it this morning,” she said, “and I felt really calm about it.” Something else flitted through her mind over breakfast. “I thought about when I won my first Wimbledon. It was against [sister] Venus. I was trying to tap into those emotions.” Once again she mentioned calmness.
There was nothing calm about Williams’ serve or her groundstrokes, at least not in terms of their power, and the Czech, beaten 6-1, 6-2 in a minute under an hour, simply couldn’t cope.
If Johanna Konta’s conqueror had hoped to take on Williams at volleying then she hadn’t banked on the sharpness the history-chaser had developed through playing mixed with Andy Murray, pictured, at these championships – indeed, neither had Williams herself.
“I promise you, when I hit a volley I was like: ‘Would I have made that if I didn’t play doubles?’ I don’t think so. I kept telling you guys I thought the doubles would help me, and I really think it did. I know when I play doubles here with Venus, it definitely helps my singles. That’s why I was really keen to play mixed this time.”
Appearing in her first slam semi at the age of 33, Strycova was bidding to become the first unseeded player to reach the final in the Open era. Undeterred by three previous hammerings by Williams, she said beforehand she couldn’t wait for this match and bounced onto the Centre Court like Tigger. One of her first hits was over-enthusiastically long but she was quickly chopping at the ball in her idiosyncratic way.
Strycova has a double-fisted sliced backhand and cuts her forehand in equally quirky fashion. Williams – slow-moving, hand on hip as if having suffered a stitch – looked in no mood to be made to run around the court, especially on grass which everyone says is slow this year. “But I’m the wrong person to ask about that,” she said later. “I’m from [tough LA County city] Compton and everything here is, like, amazing.”
The Czech is fond of a drop shot, and with Williams looking very much in the mood she thought she’d better try one. It found the net, putting Strycova in trouble early and she lost her serve. Williams consolidated her advantage by banging some aces and again Strycova tried to dink her but Williams was quickly on to it. A thunderous backhand down the line gave her two points for a further break and only one was needed.
Strycova couldn’t get going but then she played her best shot of the match thus far – on the backhand – to provide hope. Next the ball twirled along the net and toppled over to Williams’ side and she had three break points. But all were quickly squandered. “You wanna drop me? Have this,” Williams might have been saying to herself as she made Strycova almost crash into the umpire’s chair. The opening set was secured with another ace.
Strycova can make the ball do funny things. She flicked up a stray one from the ground with her foot, a skill which would be beyond some SPFL footballers. But she couldn’t get it past Williams. In the second set there was a 100 per cent improvement in the number of games she won right away, but any challenge to the Williams serve was non-existent.
“She was serving amazing, she was playing very deep, so I really couldn’t play what I wanted to do,” Strycova admitted.
The crowd craved a contest, though, and tried to lift her spirits while she battered a ball into the turf in frustration. Then at 2-2, 30-all on her serve, Williams loomed again. Strycova tried the drop shot again, a move which had failed her too many times already, and so it proved once more.
Meanwhile the shot which never failed Williams was the cross-court forehand drive, right into the angle of the lines.
Despite the result Strycova was still able to enjoy the experience and how the crowd, so pro-Konta, cheered for her this time. And what of Williams? “She has won so many slams and now she’s looking at the history. Maybe that is what’s driving her. Yeah, I just have a respect for her.”