LONDON -- As the women's final at Wimbledon approached, most experts predicted that Serena Williams would overcome Simona Halep to win the title and equal Margaret Court's record Grand Slam singles title count of 24.
But Halep, much like Angelique Kerber last year in the Wimbledon final against Williams, seized her moment. She took advantage of an extremely slow start by Williams and never faltered or relented as she locked down the second Grand Slam title of her career, rolling to a 6-2, 6-2 victory in 56 minutes. Here's how Halep accomplished it:
One more ball
It's one of the oldest commandments in the tennis lexicon: Try to get that one more ball back. You never know when your opponent will take her eye off the ball or make an error. Halep has been doing that for her entire career, which is how she has been able to play three finals on the most rally-friendly surface of them all. But she never felt quite comfortable with her footing on grass.
Halep finally cracked the grass-court code here this year. Her ability to track and return shots -- often in ways that posed awkward questions for Williams -- were a major component in her win. The greatest example: Halep recorded the critical go-ahead break in the fifth game of the second set when, after chasing down a few heavy Williams blasts, she hooked a desperation crosscourt shot that left Williams with an easy backhand down-the-line putaway. But Williams cracked the shot just beyond the baseline to provide Halep with the lead, 3-2.
Halep made a grand total of just three unforced errors in the match, which left her with a +10 ratio of winners to unforced errors. It wasn't like Halep unfurled a stream of winners. She had just 13 in the match. But combine that with just three unforced errors and it's easy to see why Williams had so little room to operate.
Williams smacked 17 winners, but her differential was -9 because she littered the court with 26 unforced errors. Each time she hit a signature placement or teed off on a Halep serve, an error soon followed to wipe out her advantage. Williams was equally erratic off wings, making 11 forehand errors and 14 with her backhand.
When you can play error-free tennis while keeping the ball in play and weathering the best a powerful opponent can throw at you, you're in great shape.
Before the match, most observers felt that Williams would be able to tee off on Halep's serve, especially her second serve. But while Halep is short of power (her fastest in the final was 108 mph, 10 miles slower than Williams'), she's very good at protecting her serve by getting the first ball into play. She ranks No. 3 on the WTA Tour with a first-serve conversion rate of 69.7%. She did even better in Saturday's final, putting in 76% of her first serves.
Halep won 83% of her first-serve points, an excellent percentage at any time. That allowed her to, if not exactly take control of the points, at least meet most of Williams' returns with her feet planted and ready to rally. Granted, Williams did not have a great day in any dimension, including returning. But in the last game of the match, when Halep might have been vulnerable to nerves with the match on the line, she delivered two serves that Williams wasn't able to return, including the one that brought her to match point.
Serena: Halep played 'out of her mind'
Serena Williams says Simona Halep played amazing and there wasn't much she could have done. She also thanks her team for all the support.
Taking it down the line
One of the keys to Halep's success in general is her ability to go down the line off either forehand or backhand wing. It's more difficult than going crosscourt (both technique-wise, and because the net is higher at either side of the court) but it's also the greatest weapon in a baseliner's arsenal. It takes time away from an opponent, opens up the court, and ends or completely redirects a rally.
After breaking Williams for a 1-0 lead, Halep built a 40-love lead and secured the game with a down-the-line blast that declared her intentions. She broke Williams again in the next game -- again with a down-the-line backhand winner. She would continue to do damage with the shot throughout the match.
Nobody would have predicted that Williams would fail to break Halep even once, and see no more than one break point -- or that Halep would convert four of five break points against the greatest of all women servers. Williams squandered her only break point with a crosscourt forehand error. She also gifted Halep with break-point errors twice, while Halep converted her other two break points with those down-the-line backhand winners.