WIMBLEDON, England - The 2018 Wimbledon final is set for Saturday and it will be two familiar faces battling it out once again on Centre Court. Two years after facing off for the 2016 Wimbledon title, Serena Williams and Angelique Kerber will lock horns again, as Serena looks to capture her 24th Slam title and Kerber bids for her 3rd.
Three thoughts on a revealing set of semifinals:
Serena Williams continues to astound.
Serena tallied her 20th consecutive win at the All England Club, raising her level once again to defeat a high-quality performance from Julia Goerges to win 6-2, 6-4 and advance to her 10th Wimbledon final. We have said it before and we will say it again: this is not normal. And her return to her third consecutive Wimbledon final was never, ever inevitable.
As we wrote before the tournament, the draw certainly broke Serena's way when she landed in the bottom quarter of the draw that was seemingly built for her to slowly play herself into form. With all the upsets through the first week, the 7-time Wimbledon champion did not face a Top 50 player before squaring off against No.13 Goerges on Thursday, but with each match she has tightened the screws on her game. Opening her tournament against No.105 Arantxa Rus, Serena looked the bad kind of loose, hitting 29 unforced errors in a straight-set win. That number has dropped precipitously with each round.
By the time she hit the second week, Serena looked title-ready. Against Evgeniya Rodina she struck 30 winners to just 11 unforced errors. Pushed to three sets against No.51 Camila Giorgi, she played a poised and controlled match, hitting 24 winners to 9 unforced errors. Then, against the best competition she's faced all tournament, Serena dispatched Goerges with 16 winners to just 7 unforced errors.
"I thought she played great," Serena said. "I had to lift my level because I've seen her play a lot and she's never played like this, with such few unforced errors, so many winners, so aggressive, moving so well.
"Like I said, I always play people at their greatest, you know. Always have to lift myself."
But forget the forehands and the backhands for a moment. What has impressed the most has been Serena's composure throughout the fortnight. After dropping the first set against Giorgi in the quarterfinals, Serena never panicked. She held her level and waited to pounce and she did. She protected her serve - Giorgi only saw 2 break points in the match - and broke Giorgi in each of the next two sets to win.
Her win over Goerges showed more evidence of her resilience. Players almost universally struggle with playing the clutch points when they return to competition. It's the one thing you cannot practice, managing the nerves and keeping focus when the stakes elevate throughout a match. Serena did not face a break point until her final service game of the match, which saw Goerges finally break serve. But no bother. Serena stepped up and broke back immediately at love to seal her spot in the final.
Pundits may try to nit-pick the state of her game off the ground - and really, there's not much to pick at - but one thing has been abundantly clear: mentally, Serena Williams is ready to win No.24.
Angelique Kerber's versatility bolsters her grass-court pedigree.
The German won her two major titles on hard courts at the Australian Open and US Open, but Wimbledon has quietly been her most consistently successful tournament. She's now made the final in two of the last three years. Add to that a semifinal in 2012 and quarterfinal in 2014. The fact is, grass forces Kerber to do exactly what she needs to do in order to play her best tennis: be aggressive.
That aggression wasn't as necessary on Thursday against Jelena Ostapenko. When you have to spend your energy fending off haymakers, there's little time to throw your own. But it's precisely that versatility, the ability to play both a counter-punching game and an aggressive game, that has landed her consistently in the final frames of the majors this year.
"When she played against me today, I mean, I'm hitting the ball much harder than her, and she didn't have this opportunity to go for the shots," Ostapenko said after the 6-3, 6-3 loss. "But when she plays against players when she has time, I think she's doing winners and she's going for the shots. It's not like she's just running and putting everything back.
"With me, of course, she was more defensive player because I hit the ball much harder. Otherwise, I think she's not only defensive player, she can hit winners, as well."
Kerber's road to her first major final since winning the US Open has proven just that. Against Naomi Osaka in the third round, she cracked 23 winners to 5 unforced errors, unsettling the youngster with her aggression. Against Belinda Bencic in the Round of 16, she stepped up to hit 38 winners. Then she opted to play a more defensive shell against Daria Kasatkina, hitting 16 winners to the Russian's 33. Then, facing Ostapenko's audacious power for the first time, Kerber kept things tight, hitting 10 winners to 7 unforced errors.
"I think you have to see against who you play, then to change your game a little bit," Kerber said. "Especially Ostapenko today, I was not expecting like too long rallies. I know that I have to do it in the first few shots, to be aggressive, to bring a lot of balls back.
"I think there are few kinds of tennis players. You have to be ready for these shots or for the game."
Next up is a familiar opponent in Serena Williams, a woman who has every shot in the book and the experience to also adapt her game to her opponent. On Saturday, they will meet in a major final for the third consecutive time, having split their last two meetings, with Kerber besting Serena at the 2016 Australian Open final and Serena exacting revenge at Wimbledon six months later.
"We had so many great matches in the last years," Kerber said. "To see her back, it's great. I know that she is always pushing you to the limits to play your best tennis. This is the only chance to beat her."
Experience proved the tipping point for Julia Goerges and Jelena Ostapenko.
Both Goerges and Ostapenko have many reasons to leave London with their heads held high. For Ostapenko, she rebounded from a crushing first-round exit in her Roland Garros title defense to make her second major semifinal on a surface she's primed for. "I think I had two great weeks here," Ostapenko said. "Of course, today is not the result I wanted.
"I think I can still learn something. Everything will come with experience. But in general, I think I did pretty well these two weeks, got my confidence back."
At 29-years-old, Goerges found herself in her first major semifinal, facing the greatest player in the modern game. The German acquitted herself incredibly well on Centre Court, but it was the experience gap proved insurmountable in the important moments.
"I felt I played great," Goerges said. "I'm closer there. That's something which matters for me. I've never went to that stage in a Grand Slam yet before. I think I'm working towards it to achieve it another time. Playing more and more these kind of players, I think Serena is the one, yeah, who you want to play, who you want to get the experience from.
"That match today probably gives me so much more experience, and also the way the ball is coming to me, that's probably her best surface, as well. For me, spending every single moment on that court, getting the experience of playing her in a semifinal of a Grand Slam, that's something which you don't experience that much. I've never experienced that before.
"So for me it's something, yeah, which I'm looking forward to achieving another time and maybe go one step further."