Serena Williams Will Need To Serve Better To Tie Margaret Court

With one more win at Wimbledon, Serena Williams would tie Margaret Court, the only player in history with 24 Grand Slam singles titles. In Saturday’s final, the 37-year-old Williams will battle Simona Halep, who won the French Open last year but has never won a Wimbledon title. Williams appears to have shaken off the rust of earlier this season and seems, at last, to have returned to her perch as the most dominant player in the history of tennis.

There’s just one problem: Williams’s incredible serve is still a little shaky.

“I don’t know if I’ve had my best serves this tournament,” Williams said. “I’m just now starting to use my legs again.”

On Thursday, Williams beat Barbora Strycova, a 33-year-old who had never reached a Grand Slam singles semifinal. Strycova, who has a fine track record at doubles, reaching the semifinals in each major event, couldn’t control Williams, who won 6-1, 6-2.

But Williams hasn’t played anyone like the 27-year-old Halep. She’s great at receiving serves and, at times, pouncing on them, too. Halep has won 53 percent of return points — and that includes first and second serves. Williams, known as an all-time returner, has won 43 percent.

Halep also sounds eager and hungry. “I feel stronger mentally facing her,” she said. “We will see what is going to happen.”

Williams has yet to play against a top 15 player in this tournament. According to the WTA, Williams’s opponents so far had an average rank of 75.2, and only two of them were seeded (No. 30 Carla Suarez Navarro in the fourth round and No. 18 Julia Goerges in the third). A similar scenario unfolded a year ago, when Williams coasted to the finals with her average opponent ranked even lower at 80, until she faced Angelique Kerber in the final. Kerber, who has an attacking style similar to Halep’s, beat Williams 6-3, 6-3.

Williams needs to serve as well as possible to tie Court’s record, and so far, her serve has seemed vulnerable. Throughout the event, Williams has won 54.2 percent of second-serve points, which is solid and in line with her career numbers at Wimbledon. But the first serve counts the most, and Williams has not nearly been her best. She has won 74 percent of her first serves in her six matches. That’s lower than for all of her Wimbledon wins; her previous low at a Wimbledon in which she won was 75.8 percent in 2003. Her share of first serves won was much higher for her most recent match, at 89 percent, so perhaps she has started to find her footing.

At her best, Williams’s serves have been efficient and brutal. In 2010, she won 87.5 percent of the points for which she landed her first serve, the highest at Wimbledon in her career. (That year, Williams hit 23.5 percent of her total points served as aces.) Williams didn’t lose a set that year (she also lost no sets in 2002). In 2012, Williams had stats nearly as impressive, hitting 20.9 percent of her total points served as aces. That’s the only time Williams hit more than 100 serves as aces (102 in all) at Wimbledon.

Williams has played Halep 11 times, including three at a Slam. Halep has won just once, in 2014. But she played Williams close at the Australian Open this year and won a set from her in the 2011 Wimbledon, back in their first matchup. Williams knows this will be her biggest test, and she knows that Halep is ready.

“The biggest key with our matches is the loss that I had. I never forgot it. She played unbelievable,” Williams said. “That makes me know that level she played at, she can get there again. So I have to be better than that.”

Women’s Tennis Is Finally Getting Young Again

In the French Open final, 19-year-old Markéta Vondroušová, who dazzles with drop shots, will face off with Ashleigh Barty, 23, who is crafty and quick with a ton of energy. Amanda Anisimova, 17, reached the semis by hitting smooth strokes and bullets all day long. And world No. 1 Naomi Osaka lost early in Paris but claimed two Grand Slam titles by the age of 21.

Women’s tennis is, at long last, getting young.

The average age of players who have won at least one WTA title this year is 23.6 years old. That’s the lowest age since 2008 — and it will drop even further after Saturday. At the French Open this year, the final eight women in the event were no older than 28.

This represents a sharp downturn from most of the previous decade. The average age of WTA winners floated between 25.8 and 26.1 between 2013 and 2016. But it also serves as a return to normalcy for women’s tennis, which had long been dominated by youth: The average age of WTA tour players in 1990 was 20.9, as 21-year-old Steffi Graf and 17-year-old Monica Seles finished the season ranked first and second. That average age would not rise above 23.5 for nearly two decades.

The amount of young talent is enormous again. And impatient. Since Serena Williams won her last major at the Australian Open in 2017, only one other Slam winner has been at least 30 years old: Angelique Kerber, who won Wimbledon at age 30 last year. The winners of the other seven majors: Osaka, who won the 2018 U.S. Open at age 20 and the 2019 Australian at 21; Jelena Ostapenko, who won the 2017 French at 20; Garbiñe Muguruza, age 23 when she won the 2017 Wimbledon;5 Sloane Stephens, who won the U.S. Open at 24; Simona Halep, who won the French Open last year at age 26; and Caroline Wozniacki, the 2018 Australia Open winner at age 27.

Part of this may be cyclical. As clusters of young, talented players emerge, a generation of older players who exceeded the normal life expectancy of a tennis career is nearing its end — and we aren’t just talking about the Williams sisters, who are now 37 and 38 years old. Francesca Schiavone, 38, won the French Open in 2010 but retired last September. Roberta Vinci, 36, shocked the world at the 2015 U.S. Open when she beat Serena Williams, who was two wins away from a golden Slam, but Vinci retired in May 2018. Agnieszka Radwanska, 30, who lost the Wimbledon final in 2012, called it quits in November.

Other players might not last that long, either. Samantha Stosur, 35, is in great shape and is an expert in doubles, but she struggles in singles. After next year’s Olympics, 30-year-old Dominika Cibulkova could decide to leave the game, too. Maria Sharapova, 32, has missed most of this season with injury. Victoria Azarenka, 29, is back after struggling since she had a child, but she might never be as powerful as she was in 2013.

After she lost a doubles match this year in Paris, Lucie Safarova announced she had retired from tennis. Now age 32, Safarova had played in Slams since 2005. She never won a major singles title, but she came close at the 2015 French Open, when she lost to Serena Williams in three entertaining sets. Safarova also won five doubles majors with Bethanie Mattek-Sands, including two in Roland-Garros.

“I think that it’s great that the competition is so strong,” Safarova said. “And we have, I think, at least 100 players now are amazing competitors. And you just have to be strong and play your 100 percent to be able to be here.”

On Saturday, Barty and Vondroušová will likely be nervous, as is usually the case for players in a Grand Slam final. But their youth — and their passion — is what this age of tennis is all about.