Rarely can a loser have waved her conqueror on to a grand slam final with such bonhomie as Elena Vesnina, who shared Centre Court with Serena Williams for 48 minutes on Thursday afternoon.
Celebrating her “magical tournament”, the 29-year-old Russian, ranked 50 in the world, was remarkably upbeat – maybe more even than Williams, who won 6-2, 6-0 to reach her ninth final here, having won six, and looking to equal Steffi Graf’s Open era 22 majors. She will be disappointed not to be joined by her sister Venus, who later lost 6-4, 6-4 to Angelique Kerber – who beat Serena in the Australian Open final.
The younger Williams was devastating in the first semi-final – so much so it was embarrassing. Not that the loser had time to take that in, even against a backdrop of popping champagne corks that echoed around the arena in the many moments of look-away silence.
“I’m not the sort of person who’s going to be crying in the locker room,” Vesnina said. “You have to admit she was just better, stronger, faster. I couldn’t do anything. I can just take this experience with me. I’m wishing the best of luck to Serena in the final. She has now a big chance to win her 22nd grand slam title. I think she’s in the right mood.
“We play a couple of times against each other. I know her attitude. She was really happy on the court, really enjoying herself. Her mood, everything was working.”
Indeed it was. She struck 28 clean winners, 11 aces, no double faults and did not offer her opponent a break point. Vesnina saved five of nine break points and was politely applauded for her occasional successes.
She garnered a mere 21 points, four of them from aces, to Williams’s 53, as she tried hard to make a contest of a mismatch. She was powerless, though, in the face of a storm that would not abate.
This was the shortest semi-final at Wimbledon since Lindsay Davenport beat Alexandra Stevenson in a minute less in 1999 for the loss of a game in each set. It is believed the quickest semi-final here of all time – long before computer records – was in 1939, when the American Alice Marble double-bagelled the German playing under a Danish flag, Hilda Sperling, in 19 minutes.
They did not sit down on the changeover in those days and there was precious little reason for either of Thursday’s opponents to do so. It was quick and brutal.
The Russian, smiling, described Williams’s cross-court forehand return from the deuce side as “so fast, you cannot even finish your serve [before] the ball’s passing you, a clear winner. I tried everything. I did serve and volley a couple of times. But it was just not meant to be. It was all about Serena.”
Despite the occasional uprising of others, it is all about Serena most days. Reflecting on her phenomenal 96% service rate, Williams said: “I feel really dominant when I serve like that, really confident.”
Often in her pomp – especially over the past year when she has fallen victim to self-doubt in the pursuit of history – she has not allowed herself to embrace the moment. Her last slam title was this one a year ago when she seemed locked in for a calendar slam – until she imploded in the semi-final at Flushing Meadows against Roberta Vinci. Then she came unstuck against a rejuvenated Kerber in Melbourne and failed to handle the rising challenge of Garbiñe Muguruza in Paris. These are all serious dips in sight of the finishing line.
She appears to have learned from them. Just as well. At 34, she does not have much longer to equal Graf and perhaps overtake the 24 slams Margaret Court won, straddling eras.
Before she headed for the doubles quarter-finals, joining her sister against Vesnina and Ekaterina Makarova in the last match on No2 Court, Williams said: “I’ve been training my mind for years and years and I’ve been preparing for these moments for decades. I feel like it’s been experience and it’s been success, it’s been failure, it’s been everything that created the opportunity for me to be able to be ready in those situations.”
It sounds convoluted – because it is. Williams, for all her excellence on the court, struggles when she is confronted by what is generally sympathetic treatment in press conferences. However, she did not want an argument this time. She was, as Vesnina pointed out, in a good mood.
On the touchy subject of equal prize money, she and Vesnina were adamant: their lop-sided match was no argument for the prosecution. Williams asserted firmly to one inquisitor. “We deserve equal prize money, yeah, absolutely. I mean, if you happen to write a short article, you think you don’t deserve equal pay as your beautiful colleague behind you?”
There was no answer to that and we moved on. As for reaching three slam finals in the same year, she put it in a Serena context: “It’s great. For anyone else in this whole planet, it would be a wonderful accomplishment. For me, it’s about holding the trophy and winning. For me, it’s not enough [to reach the final]. That’s what makes me different. That’s what makes me Serena.”
It surely does.
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