Wimbledon Preview: Serena Williams vs. Simona Halep

WIMBLEDON, England — On Saturday at Wimbledon, Serena Williams will play Simona Halep for the women’s title and compete in her third final with a chance to win a 24th Grand Slam singles championship, which would tie Margaret Court’s record.

It has been two and a half years since Williams won No. 23, at the 2017 Australian Open. At the time, she was pregnant with her daughter, Olympia Ohanian, and she did not play another tournament until March 2018.

Williams lost last year’s Wimbledon final to Angelique Kerber, 6-3, 6-3, and last year’s United States Open final to Naomi Osaka, 6-2, 6-4.

This year, Williams, 37, has played a limited schedule because of a persistent knee injury, but has looked increasingly sharp through each round at Wimbledon.

After her 6-1, 6-2 victory over Barbora Strycova in the semifinals on Thursday, Martina Navratilova, who won a record nine singles titles at Wimbledon, said: “I think Serena’s in full flight. Today she played as well as I’ve seen her play.”

Halep, a 27-year-old Romanian seeded seventh at Wimbledon, won her first Grand Slam title at the French Open last year. She is playing her first Wimbledon final. Williams, the No. 11 seed, is in her 11th Wimbledon singles final and seeking her eighth championship.

[You can watch the match on ESPN, beginning at 9 a.m. You can follow live scores here.]

Here are a few other story lines to watch:

Williams has learned from one loss to Halep.

Williams has lost only once in her 10 matches against Halep, but it was a trouncing: 6-2, 6-0 in the round-robin stage of the 2014 year-end championships in Singapore.

Williams avenged the loss in the final of that tournament, 6-3, 6-0, but says the memory of it remains fresh, and motivating.

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

It is their first meeting in a Grand Slam final.

Halep and Williams have been two best players at Grand Slam tournaments since 2014, with Halep reaching five finals and Williams 11. But they are meeting in a Grand Slam final for the first time.

Their two most recent matches were at majors: in the fourth round of the Australian Open this year and in the quarterfinals of the 2016 United States Open.

Interestingly, Williams never played Jennifer Capriati or Kim Clijsters, two longtime rivals, in a Grand Slam final. She did not face Justine Henin, the seven-time Grand Slam champion, in a major final until 2010, after each had reached that stage more than 10 times.

You can throw out the rankings.

Though Halep, at No. 7 in the world, is ranked three spots ahead of Williams, that will matter little to either.

Halep went into the Australian Open in January as the top seed, after finishing at No. 1 for the second year in a row. But before her fourth-round match against Williams, seeded 16th, Halep sounded a note of deference acknowledging all her opponent had achieved.

“In my opinion, to be No. 1 in the world and to be the best player in the world, it’s a little bit different,” Halep said.

After Halep lost the match, 6-1, 4-6, 6-4, a reporter told her: “You’re ranked No. 1, and she is Serena Williams.”

“Exactly,” Halep replied.

Williams has not been tested by top-10 opponents.

Williams has beaten just about everyone on her way to 23 Grand Slam titles, but her road to the Wimbledon final each of the last two years has been notably easy. Each time, she has had to face only one top-30 player; both times, that player was Julia Görges. Williams has not played a top-10 player since the Australian Open, when she beat Halep and then lost to No. 7 Karolina Pliskova.

When the Wimbledon draw came out, matches against the fifth-ranked Kerber and No. 1 Ashleigh Barty were possibilities, but Williams faced neither.

Halep faced only one top-10 player on her way to the final, No. 8 Elina Svitolina, in the semifinals. But she did knock out Victoria Azarenka, a former No. 1 and two-time Grand Slam champion, in the third round, and then Coco Gauff, the breakout player of the tournament, in the fourth.

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