Great players tend to love Grand Slam semifinals.
Roger Federer is 11-1 in semis at Wimbledon, and Rafael Nadal is 11-0 in them at Roland Garros. On Centre Court, Serena Williams has been just as dominant in the final four. Coming into her match with Julia Goerges today, she hadn’t lost a Wimbledon semifinal since she went out to her sister Venus 18 years ago, when she was a teenager.
Serena and Federer and Nadal are also excellent in Slam finals, of course, but there’s a little less pressure at the semifinal stage, which allows them to play a little more freely—and brilliantly. In 2016, Serena ran roughshod over Elena Vesnina, 6-2, 6-0, in the Wimbledon semis, before edging Angelique Kerber in a tight two-set final.
While she didn’t end up beating Goerges quite as badly—the final scores were 6-2, 6-4—Serena played with similar semi-style calm on Thursday. She and Goerges began each set on fairly level terms, holding to 2-2. The German used her serve, and especially her forehand—by the fourth game, she had cracked six winners from that side—to hold her own with the American.
That is, until Serena decided that it was time to elevate.
In the first set, Serena made her subtle move with Goerges serving at 2-3, 30-30. On the next two points, Serena hit her forehand with more pace and better placement—the first one moved Goerges wide, the second pushed her back. Neither shot would officially be recorded as a winner, but both forced an error from Goerges. They also earned Serena the service break. Ten minutes later, she had won the set.
WATCH—Match point from Serena's win over Goerges in Wimbledon semis:
The second set went much the same way. Again, Serena and Goerges traded holds for the first five games; again, Goerges reached 30-30 while serving at 2-3; and again Serena made her move. This time Goerges helped her out by volleying a ball that was going wide, but Serena made her pay for the mistake by smacking a difficult backhand down the line for a winner. While Serena would have a hiccup in this set—serving for the match at 5-3, she was broken for the first time—she quickly restored order by breaking at love for the match.
After watching Jelena Ostapenko litter up the stat sheet with winners and errors earlier in the day, fans on Centre Court were treated to a master class in controlled aggression, and controlled elevation, from Serena. She hit just 16 winners—four fewer than Goerges—and made just seven mistakes. Even her ace count—five—was modest by her standards. Instead of going for the lines, or trying to pulverize every shot, Serena played forcefully but safely. Most of all, she played to make Goerges miss when it mattered. Serena earned five break points, and converted four of them.
While Serena doesn’t play throwback grass-court tennis, in the old serve-and-volley mode of Martina Navratilova or Billie Jean King, she gets as close as you can from the baseline. When she’s sharp on grass, there’s a clarity to her game that feels old school; she steps forward and moves the ball purposefully, with no wasted shots or motion. She hits with depth and pace, but not with risk, and lets the surface help her.
“It’s not inevitable for me to be playing like this,” Serena said.
To which her opppnents might answer in unison: Really? On one level, it is hard to believe that Serena is in another Wimbledon final so soon after having a baby and taking a year off. You only have to remember how far from her best she was in Indian Wells and Miami this spring to appreciate the progress she’s made since. On another level, though, with a 92-10 record at Wimbledon dating back to 1998, Serena understands the grass-court game as well as any player has. She showed us how to play it today.
Strokes of Genius is a world-class documentary capturing the historic 13-year rivalry between tennis icons Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. It is timed for release as the anticipation crests with Roger as returning champion, 10 years after their famed 2008 Wimbledon championship – an epic match so close and so reflective of their competitive balance that, in the end, the true winner was the sport itself.