LONDON — Leading 5-2 in the second set, Simona Halep sat in her chair during the changeover and looked straight ahead. She didn’t smile or show any signs of emotion whatsoever, seemingly tuning out the buzzing crowd. She wiped the small amount of sweat accumulated on her face with a towel, but otherwise was completely still. She might not have even blinked.
When time was called, she took a deep breath, exhaling as her shoulders sank down without tension, and headed back on the court to finish what she had started against Serena Williams.
She rattled off the next four points, quickly and emphatically, and with a blistering resolve. It was over when Williams hit the ball into the net after a short rally. Finally then, Halep cracked a smile, and she fell to her knees on Centre Court.
She had won her first Wimbledon title, and second Grand Slam, with an astonishing 6-2, 6-2 rout over Williams, often considered the greatest of all time, in under an hour. Even she seemed stunned at its conclusion, like she herself hadn’t allowed herself to think about her opponent, or even beyond each point.
When asked if she had ever played a better match after the win, she didn’t hesitate: “Never.”
“Today I decided before the match that I’m going to focus on myself and on the final of [a] Grand Slam, not on [Williams],” she added later. “That’s why I was able to play my best, to be relaxed, and to be able to be positive and confident against her.
“I looked at the scoreboard, and I said, ‘OK, it’s 5-2, it’s real.’ Then I just played every ball. I didn’t think about the score at all.”
It was a nearly flawless effort. She looked collected and calm throughout. Even after winning long rally points — and she won almost all of them — she never did anything more than clench a fist and raise it near her face in her trademark fashion. But there was never a smile. Her performance and steeliness were a stark contrast from Williams’ struggles and passion.
Williams, chasing history as she looked for major title No. 24, was emotional throughout, yelling “Come on!” after big moments, looking as if she was trying to will herself into the match. At times she looked overcome with the pressure and the weight of the record books. But even after her rare bright spots, she could never get any momentum going. Halep had an answer for everything she sent her way.
Williams had 26 unforced errors, compared to just three for Halep.
“She literally played out of her mind,” a gracious Williams said immediately after receiving the runner-up trophy, her fourth at the All England Club. “Congratulations, Simona. It was a little bit deer in headlights for me. When a player plays like that, you just have to take your hat off.”
Both had magical runs to the final, as each hoped to add another chapter to their well-documented tennis stories. Halep, trying to become the first Romanian to win at the All England Club, had lost just one set coming into the final (in the second round to Mihaela Buzărnescu) and was putting on her best grass showing since a 2014 semifinal appearance.
In much-hyped matches over former world No. 1 Victoria Azarenka and teenage prodigy Cori “Coco” Gauff, she handled business quickly and efficiently with solid victories. Against Elina Svitolina in the semifinals, she took charge after a long, hard-fought first game for a 6-1, 6-3 victory.
Williams had survived the “Group of Death,” which included several other former champions, and held off a tricky Alison Riske in the quarters in three sets, before routing Barbora Strycova, 6-1, 6-2, in the semifinals.
After falling in her past two major finals, at Wimbledon last year and the US Open soon after, it seemed like Williams had finally hit her stride after coming back from a complicated childbirth and maternity leave. She had been injured for much of the season leading into the tournament, but she was starting to show a return to vintage form and said she no longer was experiencing any pain in her knee or elsewhere.
The crowd was very much on her side on Saturday, with loud cheers every time she won a point, no matter how difficult or contested. Longtime pal Meghan Markle, the Duchess of Sussex, and Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge, were both seen clapping for her from the Royal Box. With a 9-1 career record over Halep, including three matches at majors, it seemed like everything was in place for Williams to make history, redeem her lopsided loss against Angelique Kerber during the 2018 campaign and earn her eighth Wimbledon title in the process.
“She literally played out of her mind. … It was a little bit deer in headlights for me. When a player plays like that, you just have to take your hat off.”
Halep didn’t get that memo. She instead remembered a dream her mother had when she was a child about playing in the Wimbledon final, and she began to believe she could do just that — and more.
She joked at various points over the fortnight about wanting to become a lifetime member of the All England Club, one of the many perks that come with winning, but it was clear when she wore the membership pin at her news conference after the victory that the distinction truly meant something to her.
Once criticized for her mental fragility, the 27-year-old has made a considerable effort to reverse course. When she lost in the final at the French Open in 2014 and 2017, the doubters questioned her ability to stay focused when it mattered most. In the 2017 championship match, she blew a 6-4, 3-0 lead to Jelena Ostapenko and it seemed she couldn’t get over the proverbial hump.
Then she started working with a renowned sports psychologist who helped her from turning negative in times of adversity on the court. She says she now harnesses her emotions for good, and uses her nerves for her own advantage.
Newly-minted Wimbledon champion Simona Halep explains how her mindset was the key to her victory in straight sets against Serena Williams.
“The finals I lost in the past helped me for sure to be different when I face this moment,” Halep said. “It’s never easy to face a Grand Slam final. You can get intimidated by the moment. You can get nervous, too nervous.
“I have learned that it’s a normal match, not thinking that much about the trophy, just going there and try to be the best as you can. So I did that. I said that every time I would play a final of Grand Slam, I will do exactly the same thing. So today I did it.”
As Halep prepares for her first championship dinner at her new club and for all of her other post-victory celebrations, Williams will go back to the drawing board to try and figure out what will make the difference for her going forward in order to finally clinch the trophy she so desperately seeks.
Perhaps it will be Halep’s journey that can provide some guidance.
“I don’t know if there’s anything I could have done differently [today],” she said after the loss. “I think I gave a great effort for this fortnight. Again, I just think Simona just played her heart out.
“If anything, I could just learn to be like that.”