Throughout her professional career, Simona Halep has enjoyed a reputation as a classic counterpuncher, a player with superb defensive skills and the instinct to patiently extend rallies until an ideal moment to strike reveals itself. Prior to her straight-sets (6–2, 6–2) upset of Serena Williams in the women’s singles final at Wimbledon today, Halep’s only Grand Slam singles title had come on the red clay at the French Open, a slow, high-bouncing surface that rewards the meticulous construction of points as opposed to aggressive shot making.
But Halep’s triumph over Williams on the lush, low-bouncing grass of Wimbledon’s Centre Court made clear that the 27-year-old Romanian, who came into the match as an obvious underdog, is so much more than a defense-oriented grinder. There’s no question that her speed and sound footwork are her greatest strengths; they allow her to cover the court beautifully and frustrate any opponent by consistently keeping the ball in play. But in the early stages of the final, the precision and force with which she hit her groundstrokes are what elicited countless oohs from the gathered crowd. Chris Evert, who performed color-commentary duties for ESPN, repeatedly marveled at the power and placement of Halep’s shots from the back of the court. The Romanian played at such a high level that her win seemed like a foregone conclusion from the start.
Halep’s victory felt eerily similar, in many respects, to the classic 2008 men’s singles final between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. (Federer and Nadal met yesterday in the men’s semifinal, with Federer prevailing in the less spectacular sequel.) Like Federer in 2008, Williams came into this year’s final as the player who had already won multiple Wimbledon titles; her powerful serve and groundstrokes are particularly difficult to deal with on grass. And like Nadal in 2008, Halep entered the contest as someone who had never proved that she could play her absolute best tennis on this surface.
But in today’s final, as in the 2008 match, it was the underdog who frustrated the more established champion, by neutralizing her opponent’s strengths and firing winners from all parts of the court. Watching Halep scramble from sideline to sideline and send some of Williams’s most formidable shots back over the net—sometimes with nearly as much pace and often at wickedly acute angles—was a throwback to the way Nadal took down Federer to write his own name into the lore of tennis’s most hallowed tournament.
Halep accomplished a similar feat today: One of the points of the match occurred at 4–2 in the second set, when Halep hit a forehand on the run with a perfect combination of spin and pace. The ball landed deep on Williams’s side of the court, and all the American could do was weakly parry it back across the net, allowing Halep to crush a backhand down the opposite line for a winner. It was a beautiful example of how court coverage, point construction, and ball striking allowed Halep to keep Williams off balance all afternoon.
In her post-match, on-court interview, Halep admitted that this was the best match she had ever played. She has been ranked No. 1 in the world, but defeating Williams at Wimbledon is unquestionably her career-defining moment thus far. As for Williams, another loss in a Grand Slam final will raise questions about whether, at 37, she still has enough stamina to win her sport’s biggest titles. She certainly still has the skill; in mixed doubles, she hit the shot of the tournament, a forehand return that dropped like an anvil after clearing the net and cut sideways across the court, out of the reach of her opponent.
Halep is a worthy champion, and her form today suggests that her best moments as a professional tennis player lie ahead. Williams remains a titan of the sport and is often and deservingly described as the “greatest of all time.” She dominated headlines this fortnight at the All England Club for the joyous mixed-doubles partnership she forged with Andy Murray and the exceptional play she exhibited in the singles draw prior to the final. (She hilariously reacted to a fine she received for court damage by likening herself to an Avenger.) Williams is still one Grand Slam singles title away from equaling Margaret Court’s all-time record, but Halep looks like the player with the better chance of adding to her own count of Grand Slam titles in the near future.