In the summer of 2002, before the U.S. Open, Pete Sampras, slowing and struggling and contemplating retirement, at age thirty-one, brought back his old coach Paul Annacone. Then Sampras, who was seeded seventeenth, went on to win the tournament, defeating Andre Agassi in the final, stunning much of the tennis world. He retired shortly thereafter. Annacone, who’d later coach Roger Federer, among others, has a theory about how a tennis great ages. It’s not that all aspects of her or his game diminish at the same pace, or that the ineffables of greatness—the self-confidence and the hunger to win, and the ability, under pressure, to find yet another gear—atrophy steadily and irrevocably like fast-twitch muscle fibres. Greatness, Annacone suggests, comes, with time, to flicker. It can flare in late career, but will never again glow every week. And don’t count on finding some switch for it in the moment that nothing short of greatness is what’s required to win.
Serena Williams, approaching her thirty-eighth birthday, showed few signs of greatness in her lopsided, 6–2,6–2 loss to Simona Halep in the Wimbledon Ladies’ final, on Saturday. She made twenty-six unforced errors. The pace of her first serve was not what it had been in previous matches—not one serve reached a hundred and twenty miles per hour—and she had only two aces. Her returns, particularly on the backhand side, were not punishing, and neither, for the most part, were her groundstrokes. Williams often starts slowly, but “slowly” doesn’t do justice to how she started out this match—a match in which a victory would have given her a twenty-fourth Grand Slam title, tying the record held by Margaret Court, and her first as a mother, which she has said would mean a lot to her. Williams was down 0–4 in the first eleven minutes. That this wasn’t going to be Serena’s day was all but certain by then.
Maybe it was just nerves. Wanting one more major championship as badly as she does has weighed on her. Maybe she just didn’t have enough match play in a season that has seen her sidelined by a hobbled knee. Or maybe working her way rather easily to the final, through a draw in which so many of the best players—Ashleigh Barty, Petra Kvitová, Karolína Plíšková—were knocked out by the quarter-finals, lent a false impression of how ready she would be to face a top player like Halep. Williams had, it’s true, beaten Halep nine of the ten times they’d met over the years, most recently at the Australian Open. And Halep, perhaps the women’s game’s finest defender, is no one’s idea of a grass-court player. Two weeks ago, she would have said as much herself.
But Halep had been dominating opponents through the Wimbledon fortnight, moving on the slippery grass as if it were clay, and stepping firmly into her groundstrokes to generate more pace. On Saturday, Halep brought greatness with her to the final, and it never really wavered—she later called it the best match she has ever played. Her serve had unusual pop, particularly down the T. Williams, who had been scorching returns in her previous matches, earned just one break-point opportunity, and didn’t convert. Halep consistently redirected Williams’s ground strokes, something you don’t often see—and Williams, more than once, stood surprised and flat-footed as resulting winners landed yards from her, and hissed past her. Halep forced Williams, through her defense, to rally, and when the rallies extended, Halep mostly won them. Halep broke Williams’s serve four times. She silenced Williams; there were few screams, and only one or two self-encouraging shouts of “Come on!” The whole thing was over in fifty-six minutes. It was the worst drubbing in a Grand Slam final of Williams’s long career.
Halep, afterward, was as easeful and joyful as I have ever seen her. She laughed. She smiled broadly and often. She could not stop using the word “happy,” which is not a word she has reached for much to describe herself over the years. When asked by a reporter, “At what point in your career playing Wimbledon did you feel winning Wimbledon could be a possibility for you?” she deadpanned, “Today,” and laughed some more.
Williams, understandably, was downcast. She’s reached three Grand Slam finals since returning to the tour after giving birth to her daughter, Olympia. She hasn’t won a set in any of them. She talked with reporters not long after the match ended. She couldn’t explain, or wasn’t in the frame of mind to try to explain, the shortcomings of her own performance, why her greatness, as Annacone would have it, did not show itself. She did manage, nevertheless, to summarize things. “I don’t know,” she said. “She just played great.”