WIMBLEDON, England — It has been 16 months since Serena Williams embarked on her comeback after giving birth, and 10 months since she ignited a firestorm over race and women’s rights after a heated dispute with an umpire while losing in the final of the United States Open.
At 37 now, Williams has confronted age and injury and questions over her place in today’s game as a crowd of young players has risen and threatened to take the sport by storm. All this must have been uncomfortable for Williams, even though, with 23 Grand Slam singles trophies, her legacy is secure and her stature as a global celebrity and a cultural force is unquestioned.
These past two Wimbledon weeks showed that above all she is still quite capable of playing spectacular tennis. But so far, she has not been capable of pushing past the finish line that will bring her another major title.
Williams’s loss to Simona Halep in the Wimbledon final on Saturday was a stunner. Halep, 27, the seventh seed, played flawlessly. She returned her opponent’s powerful serve with remarkable consistency and often drew errors by chasing Williams, the clear crowd favorite, from corner to corner. The final score was 6-2, 6-2. It took 56 minutes. Halep made three unforced errors.
While Williams did not perform anywhere near the level of her semifinal win over Barbora Strycova, the truth is that Halep grabbed this title for her own.
“It was the best match of my life,” Halep said at the postmatch news conference.
Williams said: “When someone plays lights-out, there’s really not much you can do. You just have to understand that that was their day.”
She added, “I just have to figure out how to win a final.”
Williams has now made it to three championship matches at major tournaments since coming back from maternity leave in March 2018, and she has lost all three.
Much has been made of her quest to tie Margaret Court’s record of 24 Grand Slam singles titles. The chase helped motivate her return to professional tennis after becoming a mother. It sustained her through equally tough losses in the finals of the French Open and the U.S. Open last year.
She will have to use it as motivation again.
At Wimbledon, she was attempting to banish the ghosts that have lurked around her since the U.S. Open last year.
There, she faced 20-year-old Naomi Osaka in the final on a sweltering September evening in New York — a match that became among the most contentious in a career hardly free of controversy.
Who can forget the ruling from the umpire, Carlos Ramos, that Williams was getting coaching from the stands? Or her bitter words toward him? Or the point penalty, the game penalty and her demand that he apologize? “How dare you insinuate I was cheating?” she shouted. “You stole a point from me. You’re a thief!”
Who can forget Osaka’s determination as she pulled to victory, 6-2, 6-4, or the tears that streamed down her face as Williams’s fans erupted in boos when Osaka accepted the trophy?
The U.S. Open once again thrust Williams into the center of a divisive debate. Many saw her as a hero standing up for the rights of women and mothers, especially black women and mothers.
Detractors saw Williams as a selfish egotist, lost in a cloud of celebrity and coddling handlers.
Williams did not play another tournament in 2018. In January, she faded in her quarterfinal at the Australian Open. Struggling to practice because of a balky left knee, she withdrew from big tournaments and was spotted at Disneyland Paris in a wheelchair before the French Open last month.
When she suffered an ignoble loss to a 20-year-old upstart, Sofia Kenin, early in the French Open, it became easy to think that age was finally catching up to her.
When she arrived at Wimbledon she was shrouded in doubt. The tournament gave her the 11th seed. She had a chance, as all great champions do, especially on their best surface, but she was not a heavy favorite.
An uncommon constellation of circumstances seemed to help drive her to the final.
Her left knee was pain free.
Midway through the tournament, Harper’s Bazaar published an essay in which she wrote about the U.S. Open controversy. She described the deep internal pain it had caused her, and she disclosed that she had sought therapy.
She revealed that she had written Osaka a letter of apology.
“I am truly sorry,” Williams wrote. “I thought I was doing the right thing in sticking up for myself. I would never, ever want the light to shine away from another female, specifically another black female athlete.”
Williams said Osaka sent a message of forgiveness. As Williams made her way through the Wimbledon draw — slowly at first, groping for rhythm — it became clear that Osaka’s words and the publication of the essay had lightened her burden.
Then the draw opened. Wimbledon is where torches are passed.
Top-seeded Ashleigh Barty, 23, the new French Open champion, lost her fourth-round match. Osaka, who had won the Australian Open in January and was seeded second, succumbed in her first match.
As the young champions dropped the torch, Williams picked it up.
She spoke of conjuring memories of her younger self. She watched as Coco Gauff, the 15-year-old sensation who had started playing tennis because of the Williams sisters, knocked out Venus Williams in the first round.
Gauff became the youngest qualifier to reach the tournament’s round of 16, and a global phenomenon.
For Williams, Cocomania seemed to be an elixir.
“I personally was nothing like her at 15,” she told reporters. “I didn’t play like that. I didn’t look like that; she’s just so poised. I was somewhere watching cartoons.”
An additional lift came from her decision to play in mixed doubles with Andy Murray, a two-time Wimbledon champion. In their matches she laughed and strutted and flashed a wide smile.
Going into this Wimbledon final, off-court issues seemed distant: the problems caused by being a black woman in a white, male-dominated sport; the blood clots and hematoma that nearly killed her in 2011, then again after giving birth; her postpartum depression.
One could see it unfolding: Serena Williams was playing tennis with joy and lightness again.
Then she met Halep, who brought magic to Centre Court.
Serena Williams had doled out dozens of defeats just like this one over the course of her career. Saturday she was on the other side.
But she is hardly finished competing.
“I just have to keep going, keep trying, keep working,” she said afterward.
The look on her face was one of sadness, but also resolve.
Now she will head into a tournament swing through North America this summer, culminating at another U.S. Open.
In New York, she will still be trying to tie the record, and to conquer the ghosts.