Simona Halep clearly knows her audience. After winning Wimbledon on Saturday in a brisk 56-minute, 6-2, 6-2 victory over Serena Williams, Halep gushed, relatably, about how starstruck she was by the Royal Box–dwelling duchesses in attendance. She told the assembled crowd, to a roar of collective belly laughter, how thrilled she was to have earned herself a coveted All-England Club membership via the win.
The 27-year-old Romanian’s win over Williams was a study in polite, sunny passive-aggression, and a master class in the art of the sharp-angled retort. Playing with resolute cool from the start and then, crucially, not letting up, Halep overcame her reputation for erratic intra-match swings. (“She is so emotionally articulate that she could explain the pain to us,” is how Mary Carillo put it to The New Yorker’s Louisa Thomas earlier this year, chatting about the fragility displayed in some of Halep’s past losses.) She broke Williams in the very first game of the match. And by the third game of the first set, she was already calmly doing what would seem commonplace by the end of the hour: turning what looked like surefire Williams game-winners into ones of her own; coolly spinning straw into silver and gold.
Halep hit cross-court passing shots from awkward positions with one-handed backhand stabs, and on the points when she was in position, she might have been even more impressive: Only three times throughout the match did she make an unforced error. (Williams had 26.) Halep may have been born the year the first Sonic the Hedgehog was released for Sega Genesis, but she looked like a living Pong paddle during some of her best points, teasing out impossible angles and making Williams look like someone who wanted to slam a controller down in disgust.
Halep shone on the grass, traditionally her worst surface: Her nimble, never-give-up game is usually best optimized when she’s given some extra time to lunge on slide-y clay, not when she’s battling the dispassionate green grip of Nature’s Velcro. And yet, a year after Angelique Kerber defeated Serena by just getting the ball back, Halep did the same, but with much more flare.
Williams, 37, has now gone 23-9 in Grand Slam finals during her 24-year career, and again has fallen one match shy of tying Margaret Court’s record for 24 Slam singles titles. Since winning the Australian Open in 2017 while eight weeks pregnant with her daughter Olympia and then delivering the baby in a complications-filled birth, Williams has now lost three times in the finals of a Grand Slam: at the past two Wimbledons and at the 2018 U.S. Open. Before Saturday’s match, Williams’s coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, was asked whether the opponent or the occasion was her biggest obstacle to tying Court; his answer was basically “both,” but as it turns out, more of the credit went to the woman on the other side of Centre Court, and not Centre Court itself.
Saturday’s loss was the quickest and most lopsided final of Serena’s career, but Halep’s play was so exceptional that even Williams had an “I’m not even mad, I’m impressed” demeanor after the match. (Her husband, Alexis Ohanian, sitting in the stands, wore a face about a hundred times more dyspeptic and glum.) “She literally played out of her mind,” Williams said to the crowd after the match. “It was a little bit of deer in the headlights for me.”
Halep, on the other hand, looked a little bit like a deer in the headlights as she took in the huge victory, one made all the more meaningful by the oft-reported fact that her mother had once told her that the be-all-and-end-all of making it would be to play in a Wimbledon final.
But Halep also proved to be a charming winner, with her play—still unmistakably in her counterpunching style, but with an additional few degrees of confidence on each shot—drawing gasps even from a crowd likely primed to pull for Williams, and her post-match interview answers sounding like some kind of Austerity Victory Jeopardy (when they weren’t about the Duchess of Sussex, that is).
“The best one,” she said when she was asked what the last hour of her life had been like. “Never,” she said, after being asked whether she had ever played a better match than that. Her words had a stiff upper lip to them, perhaps befitting of the occasion, but her face was all smiles, and really, that said it all.