by Liz Clarke in Wimbledon, England

For Serena Williams, history will have to wait.

Playing for one of the few records in tennis history that she doesn’t own outright — a 24th Grand Slam title that would equal Margaret Court’s mark that has stood since 1973 — Williams was undone by a slew of unforced errors in Saturday’s Wimbledon final and fell to Romania’s reinvented Simona Halep, 6-2, 6-2.

It was Williams’s most lopsided defeat in 32 Grand Slam finals, dating from 1999.

And it was over in a flash — just 56 minutes — with the 27-year-old Halep masterfully absorbing Williams’s powerful blasts, breaking Williams’s vaunted serve four times and running like mad around the court to retrieve shots that probably would have been winners against lesser competitors.

Halep dropped to her knees in disbelief when Williams smacked a final forehand into the net, bringing an end to what she called “the best match of my life.”

With the achievement, Halep, who had won her lone major (the 2018 French Open) on red clay, proved she was far more than just an indefatigable ball-retriever with a knack for sliding. Just 5-foot-6, Halep served brilliantly (fending off the lone break point she faced) and committed just three unforced errors.

She proved she could triumph on Wimbledon’s grass — a surface that had baffled and frustrated her in the past. Romania has no grass courts, Halep pointed out afterward, which explains why it took her so long to trust her footing at Wimbledon and anticipate how the ball would bounce.

“I never thought that I’m able to win on grass, with all these players that are very tall and serving with a lot of power,” Halep said. “But this year, I started to feel safe on court, which helped me a lot to believe.”

And she fulfilled her mother’s dream — that her daughter would one day play in the final of Wimbledon — as well as a few dreams of her own.

Among the perks accorded Wimbledon’s champions is lifetime membership to the All England Club, the tournament’s host and home to 38 immaculately maintained grass courts. So when the chairman of the club told Halep after her victory that she could now visit the club for lunch or dinner and play whenever she liked, Halep blurted out, “I will come for sure!”

But Halep could share few details about her mother’s reaction, she explained, because all she did was cry. “I hugged her, and I kissed her,” Halep said. “I just told her that we’ll talk later.”

Williams was gracious in defeat.

“She really played out of her mind,” Williams said during her on-court interview, congratulating Halep on the victory. “It was a little bit of deer in the headlights for me.”

Later, speaking to reporters after having a bit of time to reflect, 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 today.”

It was the third Grand Slam final Williams has reached since giving birth to her daughter, Alexis Olympia, nearly two years ago.

And it was the third Grand Slam final in which she had underperformed, after falling in straight sets to Angelique Kerber in the 2018 Wimbledon final, to Naomi Osaka in the 2018 U.S. Open final and and to Halep on Saturday at Wimbledon.

Asked whether the pressure of chasing that elusive 24th major might have been a factor in her slow start and shaky performance Saturday, Williams dismissed the thought.

“I think I was over-hitting it, trying to go for too much,” said Williams, who finished with 17 winners and 26 unforced errors. “She was getting just a tremendous amount of balls back.”

On several key points, Williams’s lack of fitness and match preparation undermined her cause.

A seven-time Wimbledon champion, Williams arrived at the All England Club having played only 12 matches all year. It had been a frustrating season, riddled by ankle and knee injuries. Laboring with knee pain, she moved poorly at the French Open last month, where she was ousted in the third round.

But with each match on Wimbledon’s grass, her best surface, Williams seemed to be playing her way into form. She won early-round matches easily and without having to cover much of the court, leaning on her powerful serve, strong return game and fierce fighting spirit.

Until Saturday, she also hadn’t faced an opponent ranked higher than 18th. Halep, a former No. 1, is ranked seventh.

The match got underway shortly after 2 p.m. as a cast of powerful and privileged women took their seats in Centre Court’s Royal Box. The duchesses of Cambridge and Sussex sat side by side, sisters-in-law looking on from the front row. Duchess Kate was the British royal Halep most wanted to meet, and Duchess Meghan is a close friend of Williams’s. British Prime Minister Theresa May also attended, as did past Wimbledon champions Martina Navratilova, Marion Bartoli, Conchita Martinez and Virginia Wade.

Catherine, duchess of Cambridge, joked about Prince George with players at Centre Court, ahead of the final Wimbledon clash. (Reuters)

Williams stepped onto Centre Court knowing she held a 9-1 advantage in her previous meetings with Halep. Williams also had the edge in power and experience, though Halep had an advantage in foot speed and defense..

But the first set was over in a flash.

Williams started poorly, spraying forehands long and plowing backhands into the net.

Halep was steady as a backboard by contrast. She had vowed before the match to forget entirely about Williams and focus only on the ball and on fighting for every point.

“I always been intimidated a little bit when I faced Serena,” Halep explained afterward. “She’s an inspiration for everyone and the model for everyone.”

And Halep was able to just that — fight for every point rather than fight against Serena — by running down sharply angled shots and sending them back in kind. The longer the rallies went, the better Halep’s chances as Williams tried over and over to finish points with overcooked winners that sailed out of the court.

Just 11 minutes in, Williams found herself 0-4 in arrears.

Halep claimed the opening set in 26 minutes.

Williams ramped up the power and angles of her shots to start the second set. She also amped up the decibel level of her celebrations, unleashing a ferocious roar after executing a deft touch volley in her opening service game.

Halep was unrattled and played on, not even looking at the score until it was 5-2 in the second set.

Afterward, Williams gave no indication she’s giving up on her quest for a 24th major.

To that end, she said, she might play a few more tournaments to help prepare for the season’s final major, the U.S. Open. She’s currently entered in hard-court events in Toronto and Cincinnati this summer.

“I feel like I’m still incredibly competitive,” she said, “or else I wouldn’t really be out here. For the most part, I feel like I’m on the right track. I’m just going in the right direction in terms of getting back to where I need to be.”

Match highlights

by Ava Wallace in Washington

Final: Halep wins Wimbledon title, 6-2, 6-2

Halep dominated the match to win in under an hour and keep Williams from major title No. 24. It’s the Romanian’s second Grand Slam tournament title, following the 2018 French Open championship, and her first at Wimbledon. This is the first time in Williams’s career that she has lost three consecutive Grand Slam finals in which she’s competed.

Second set: Halep will serve for the match leading 5-2

This match went off the rails quickly (in just 53 minutes) for Williams. Halep broke again and will serve for her first Wimbledon title.

Second set: Halep breaks to lead 3-2

Halep has maintained control even after Williams seemed to settle in and raise her level early in the second set. The Romanian’s timing remains impeccable, and Williams hasn’t found her best serves — she is without an ace to this point. This may be the best Halep has ever played.

Halep wins first set, 6-2

Williams hasn’t had the best start, but this so far match is all about Halep. The Romanian played a nearly perfect first set — she had just unforced errors — and ended it by sending a serve to Williams’s forehand, which the American sent sailing out. All three of the previous Grand Slam meetings between Williams and Halep went three sets, but for now, Halep is in the driver’s seat.

First set: Halep breaks again, leads 4-0

Halep is up a double break and seals a 4-0 lead with an ace as Williams looks off her game early. The American already has six unforced errors on her backhand.

First set: Halep breaks early for a 2-0 lead

Halep’s primo defending is on display early as she takes a game off the seven-time champion by reading her serve and placing returns well. She consolidated the break by holding serve at 40-0.

Setting the scene

Serena Williams and Simona Halep have walked onto Cenre Court for the women’s final. It’s Halep’s first Wimbledon final and her first time playing in a Grand Slam final against Williams. As usual for Wimbledon championship matches, actual royalty has populated the Royal Box. Kate, Duchess of Cambridge, and Serena Williams’s good friend Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, are in attendance.

Finals preview

An upset-filled women’s tournament laden with breakthrough performances ends Saturday at Wimbledon, when Serena Williams gets a third chance to tie Margaret Court’s record of 24 major singles titles. To do so, she’ll have to get past a fellow former world No. 1 who’s in peak condition, both physically and mentally. Simona Halep has almost none of the pressure on her shoulders heading into her first Wimbledon final, and for Williams, that’s a dangerous thing — Halep is at her best when she can play freely.

First things first: Check out colleague Liz Clarke’s detailed preview of the match, where you can read about how Halep improved her grass-court game and why Williams is playing stronger than she has all year.

Now for the nitty-gritty, and let’s address Williams first. It’s the 37-year-old’s 11th career Wimbledon final, and she’ll be playing for her eighth singles championship at the All-England Club. She got here by bulldozing past Barbora Strycova 6-1, 6-2 in the semifinals, showing off conditioning and shot-making she hadn’t previously displayed this year.

She has said the mixed doubles she played with Andy Murray helped on that front. But more than anything, the fact that she is playing without any pain in the injured knee that has hampered her for much of the season and kept her extremely low on match play (she had just 12 matches under her belt before the fortnight) has made the difference. Williams is moving well and is undoubtedly more confident than she was the last time we saw her compete, at the French Open in May.

As for Halep, the 2018 French Open champion is feeling herself as well. She dismantled Elina Svitolina 6-1, 6-3 to get to her first Wimbledon final and knows all of the weight is on her opponent Saturday. She’s a top-notch defender and as determined as Rafael Nadal to play every point to the bitter end, which will hopefully make for a competitive final. History isn’t on Halep’s side — she has a 1-9 record against Williams — but the fact that she’s playing better on grass than ever before in her career should bolster her self-belief.

Pre-match reading