London, United Kingdom | AFP | Serena Williams’s place among the legends of tennis is assured but her mission will not be accomplished unless she at least equals Margaret Court’s record haul of 24 Grand Slam singles titles.
The 37-year-old American gets a third chance in a year to go level with the controversial Australian when she plays another former world number one Simona Halep in the Wimbledon final on Saturday.
Aside from the one-on-one rivalry on court, both women have a member of the royal family rooting for them — Williams’s friend Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, and Halep favouring Kate, Duchess of Cambridge.
Williams will hope for a happier ending than being out-played both by Angelique Kerber in last year’s Wimbledon final and Naomi Osaka in the US Open final where a spectacular meltdown torpedoed her cause, leading her to eventually consult a therapist.
Williams claimed after her semi-final romp over unseeded Czech Barbora Strycova that the Court landmark is not on her mind.
“I thought about it this morning,” she said.
“I actually didn’t think about it since because it’s really not about 24 or 23 or 25.
“It’s really just about going out there and giving my best effort no matter what.
“No matter what I do, I will always have a great career. I just kind of let it go this morning. I feel really calm about it.”
Her claiming to be calm — she attributes this to digging into her memory and recalling how she felt when she beat sister Venus in 2002 for her first Wimbledon title — will reassure her coach Patrick Mouratoglou.
The 49-year-old Frenchman is more forthright over the reason why Williams has returned to the tour after giving birth to her daughter Olympia.
It is chasing down 76-year-old Court’s landmark set between 1960 and 1973.
– ‘Stronger mentally’ –
“That’s why she came back to playing tennis after having a baby and so many medical complications,” he said.
“The effort she’s put in, I’ve never seen something like this.
“You have no idea how hard she worked to come back to that level, and she came back for that, so it will probably mean a lot if she makes it.”
Williams’s campaign has been something of a rollercoaster.
Sublime against Strycova — who had ousted four seeds on her way to the semi-finals — she wobbled badly against compatriot Alison Riske in the previous round.
Calmness was not the adjective to describe her emotions during the Riske match and even she admits her serenity on Thursday could be replaced by a contrasting demeanour come Saturday.
“It’s a day-to-day basis with me,” she said.
“We all know that. I’m far from perfect.”
Halep, the first Romanian woman to play in the Wimbledon final, has the weaponry to upset Williams.
However, she will want her serve to be more reliable than it was in the early stages of her ultimately easy semi-final win over Elina Svitolina.
The 27-year-old has won just one of the four Grand Slam finals in which she has appeared — last year’s French Open.
But she has shown already she can deal with a partisan crowd having beaten 15-year-old Coco Gauff on Monday.
The size of the challenge confronting her is reflected in having won just one of her 10 previous meetings with Williams, although she has regularly taken her to three sets.
“I believe that I have my chance to win against her,” said Halep.
“Of course, I respect a lot what she has done and what she’s doing. But now I feel stronger mentally facing her.
“We will see what is going to happen. It’s just a big challenge for me.”
However, for Halep it is not about being the latest player to deny Williams equalling Court’s landmark.
“I’m desperate to win Wimbledon more than to stop her.”
Martina Navaratilova, who holds the record of nine women’s Wimbledon singles titles, says Halep’s hopes of getting Williams involved in long rallies to tire her out are likely to be dashed.
“You can’t get to the big points because Serena is always ahead,” she told the BBC.
“It’s the weapon of mass destruction I call it — the Serena serve.”