by Liz Clarke in Wimbledon, England

Since returning to tennis 16 months ago, after the September 2017 birth of her daughter, Serena Williams has been chasing one of the precious few records to elude her.

With a 24th major championship, she would tie Margaret Court for the most Grand Slam singles titles in the sport’s history.

The roadblocks, however, have come in different forms: superior opponents in the 2018 Wimbledon and U.S. Open finals, in which Angelique Kerber and Naomi Osaka, respectively, prevailed; ankle and knee injuries that hampered her preparation and compromised her fitness this year; and, throughout, the ongoing juggling act of work and motherhood.

On Saturday at Wimbledon, Williams, 37, will get another shot at a history-making, 24th major title, having advanced to her 11th Wimbledon final with a 6-1, 6-2 dismantling of Barbora Strycova on Thursday on Centre Court.

Standing in her way will be Romania’s Simona Halep — like Williams, a former world No. 1 — who clinched a spot in her first Wimbledon final earlier in the day with a 6-1, 6-3 rout of Ukraine’s Elina Svitolina.

“No matter what I do,” Williams said Thursday when asked about the pressure of chasing the record, “I will always have a great career.”

Williams’s 9-1 career record against Halep suggests that Saturday’s final might be as lopsided as Thursday’s semifinals. The two matches were over in a flash, lasting just 73 and 59 minutes, in turn, which meant a short stay in the Royal Box for star-studded invitees who included soccer star David Beckham, who brought his mother; business magnate Sir Richard Branson; and British actors Claire Foy (“The Crown”), Dame Maggie Smith (“Downton Abbey”) and James Norton (“Grantchester”).

But during her march to Saturday’s Wimbledon final, Halep has declared herself a far better player and more confident person, at 27, than she was earlier in her career, when she lacked the belief, at barely 5-foot-6, that she could defeat the most powerful, accomplished player in women’s tennis.

Until recently, Halep confided, she also lacked the belief that she could ever be comfortable competing on Wimbledon’s grass, which requires far different footwork than clay, her favorite surface. Her crowning career achievement to date, winning the 2018 French Open soon after ascending to the No. 1 ranking, came on the red clay of Roland Garros.

But over the past two years, Halep has worked hard to improve on all surfaces — physically, tactically and psychologically. Hiring Darren Cahill as a part-time coach has helped, Halep said, as has working with a psychologist. Both have stressed the benefit of simplicity.

“I overcomplicated everything in my head,” said Halep, a tenacious defender and cerebral tactician. “I was thinking too much. … Sometimes I had too many options how to play and I didn’t pick the right one in the right moment.”

To improve on grass, she drilled drop shots and slices and added punch to her serve. And with simple repetition, the surface no longer seems so alien. At least, she doesn’t worry quite so much about slipping on the grass.

“I’m not scared anymore of how the ball bounces,” Halep explained. “I think I have the feeling. And also I feel stable on the legs, which is very important on the grass.”

But no matter how hard she works, Halep will never match Williams’s power — the quality that has set her game apart since she won the first of her 23 majors two decades ago, at the 1999 U.S. Open.

Against Strycova on Thursday, Williams was efficiency personified. She won the point on 89 percent of her first serves while breaking the 33-year-old Czech four times. Strycova, who was appearing in her first Grand Slam semifinal, labored with a muscle strain from the opening game but made clear that it wasn’t the deciding factor.

“I tried my best today,” Strycova said with a smile after the 59-minute rout. “Even if I would be 100 percent fit, I am not sure that I would have any chance because she didn’t let me to get into the game.”

A seven-time Wimbledon champion, Williams arrived at the All England Club this year amid questions about her fitness and preparation.

Because of her leg injuries, she had played only 12 matches all year and hadn’t come close to contesting a major. She lost in the quarterfinals of January’s Australian Open, squandering a 5-1 lead in the final set after rolling an ankle.

Ailing with knee pain at last month’s French Open, she was ousted in the third round by 20-year-old American Sofia Kenin, who effectively moved Williams around the court.

But at each round on the grass at Wimbledon, Williams has raised her level, improving like time-lapse photography. Her serve and return-of-serve remain the best in women’s tennis, even if she hasn’t regained the speed and explosiveness she had at her peak.

“I’m just now starting to use my legs again,” Williams said, noting how important leg strength is to generating power on the serve. “It’s really just about rediscovering my technique on my serve, how I use my body, how I use every part of my body. Just really know that I can still improve.”

As Strycova explained, Williams has such powerful strokes, she can dominate a match without moving much on court.

“Her strokes have so much power that, from my point of view, you just hit the ball, and then the ball [is] coming so fast at you that you are just happy [to get it] to go over the net,” said Strycova, who managed just eight winners to Williams’s 28.

But Williams did far more than blast her way into Saturday’s final.

She peppered Strycova with a variety of angles and pace. And she charged the net more often than customary — to great effect, winning the point on 13 of her 16 forays to the net. For that, Williams credited the three matches of mixed doubles she played earlier in the tournament, almost on a lark, with two-time Wimbledon champion Andy Murray.

“I promise you, when I hit a volley, I was like, ‘Would I have made that if I didn’t play doubles?’ ” Williams said during her post-match news conference. “I kept telling you guys that I thought the doubles would help me. I really think it did. … I really feel like it helped me — not just for today and this event, but hopefully it will help me just in the future.”

Women’s semifinal highlights

by Ava Wallace in Washington

Final: Williams wins, 6-1, 6-2

Serena Williams will play for her eighth Wimbledon title after the rout of unseeded Barbora Strycova. Williams, 37, moved within one win of tying Margaret Court’s record of 24 major singles titles.

Williams, the 11th seed, will face No. 7 Simona Halep of Romania in Saturday’s final.

Second set: Williams keeps her lead, 4-2

Williams remains in control in the second set, breaking Strycova’s serve again in the fifth game then converting to take a two-game lead. She’s moving Strycova around side-to-side on that (potentially) tender ankle and frustrating the Czech woman enough that she’s shouted at her box a few times this set. Williams looks to be in cruise control now, and playing as well as — if not better — than we’ve seen all year.

First set: Williams wins, 6-1

Strycova appeared to tweak her right ankle fairly early in the first set, and whether that hampered her play or not, little is going right for the first-time major semifinalist. Strycova had trouble serving and Williams feasted on her slower second serves, needing just 27 minutes to take the first set. The American saved all three break points on her serve and looked confident moving forward; she won 9 of 10 points she played at net.

First set: Williams breaks serve to take a 4-1 edge

Williams broke Strycova’s serve in the fourth game of the first set with an off-balance forehand passing shot. The 23-time major champion was short on match play coming into Wimbledon but those extra mixed doubles matches with Andy Murray appear to have paid off: Williams looks to be moving great in her 12th career semifinal and dictating shots with relative ease.

Halep wins first semifinal

The first player through to Wimbledon’s semifinals is No. 7 seed Simona Halep, the former world No. 1, who defeated Ukraine’s Elina Svitolina 6-1, 6-3 Thursday.

Halep advances to play either Serena Williams or Barbora Strycova in her fifth career final at a Grand Slam event but first at Wimbledon. The 2018 French Open champion is looking to back up her lone major title.

What you need to know

Second semifinal: No. 11 seed Serena Williams vs. Barbora Strycova, approximately 10 a.m.

First semifinal: No. 7 seed Simona Halep defeated No. 8 seed Elina Svitolina, 6-1, 6-3.


Stream: WatchESPN and the ESPN App. ESPN3 will offer the “Wimbledon Multicam, with boxes focusing on each player, online and on the ESPN app.

Semifinals preview

This year’s women’s semifinals at the All England club feature two very familiar faces and two players who have finally broken through at Wimbledon.

We’ll start with Serena Williams vs. Barbora Strycova, because, well, only one of these semifinalists is trying to match Margaret Court’s record of 24 major singles titles.

Williams advanced to her 12th Wimbledon semifinal with a solid 6-4, 4-6, 6-3 win over her fellow American Alison Riske on Tuesday in what was probably the best test she’s had all tournament. At 37 years old, an eighth Wimbledon title is well within her sights, considering her opponent has never made a Grand Slam semifinal — though Williams knows to underestimate Strycova (pronounced “Stritz-ova”) at her own risk.

The 33-year-old Czech player hasn’t won a set in three career singles matches against Williams, but she and doubles partner Lucie Safarova did hand Serena and sister Venus Williams their only Olympic doubles loss in the first round of the 2016 Olympics. Strycova, ranked 54th in the world in singles and third in doubles, is crafty, confident at net and, because of her 5-foot-5 height, plays a good amount of low balls. She should be able to move Williams around the court — if she can withstand the American’s powerful serve.

Up first will be Simona Halep and Elina Svitolina. Halep defeated Zhang Shuai, 7-6 (4), 6-1, to reach her first Wimbledon semifinal since 2014 on Tuesday, while Svitolina, a 24-year-old Ukrainian, made it to her first major semifinal with a 7-5, 6-4 win over Karolina Muchova on Tuesday.

Although Svitolina has never gone this far at a Grand Slam tournament, she has been quite the giant-killer outside of major events. She’s beaten No. 1-ranked players six times in her career and has captured big titles such as the year-end WTA championship in 2018. Svitolina should present an interesting matchup for Halep, the 2018 French Open champion, because both are excellent counter punchers and defenders. Prepare for some fun (and possibly long) rallies.

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