LONDON (Reuters) - Serena Williams remained tantalisingly one short of a record-equalling 24 Grand Slam singles titles as Simona Halep thrashed the off-key American in a one-sided Wimbledon final on Saturday.
Halep began the week halting American 15-year-old Coco Gauff’s dream run and will end it at the Champions Ball after dismantling seven-times winner Williams 6-2 6-2 with an inspired display on Centre Court.
She is Romania’s first Wimbledon singles champion.
The 27-year-old set the tone by breaking the Williams serve in the opening game and raced into a 4-0 lead in front of 15,000 incredulous fans.
She remained rock solid throughout, making only three unforced errors in a remarkable display of defence mixed with clinical counter-punching. Williams simply could not respond.
Even when Williams fired herself up at the start of the second set and began thumping the ball with her customary power, seventh seed Halep refused to back off.
Halep weathered the squall, then reeled off the last five games of what she described as the match of her life.
Williams has now lost three Grand Slam finals without winning a set since returning to action last March, following the birth of daughter Olympia in September 2017.
But this was the most chastening as she lasted only 56 minutes before biffing a forehand into the net — her 26th unforced error — to end the contest.
It was the second shortest Wimbledon final since Martina Navratilova thrashed Andrea Jaeger in 1983, one minute longer than Petra Kvitova’s trouncing of Eugenie Bouchard five years ago.
“She played out of her mind,” Williams, who had won nine of her previous 10 matches against Halep, said on court after picking up the runners-up salver for the second straight year, having ran into a similarly inspired Angelique Kerber last year.
“It was a little bit a deer in headlights for me. Whenever a player plays like that you just have to take your hat off.”
Until Saturday the only other Romanian to reach a Wimbledon final was Ilie Nastase who finished runner-up in 1972 and 1976. Halep went one better as she added the Wimbledon crown to the French Open she won in 2018.
Halep said it had been her “mother’s dream” for her to hold aloft the Venus Rosewater Dish.
Victory means she becomes a lifetime Wimbledon member.
“I wanted this badly,” she said. “When I started the tournament, I talked to the people from the locker room that my dream is to become a member here. So today it’s real.
“I’m very sure that was the best match of my life.”
After losing to Kerber a year ago, then to Naomi Osaka in a stormy U.S. Open final, Williams, 37, hoped it would be third time lucky to finally move level with Australian Margaret Court on the all-time list of Grand Slam title collectors.
Despite having only five tournaments under her belt this year, Williams, who won her first Wimbledon title in 2002, had looked calm and composed en route to her 11th Wimbledon final.
If she thought she could put down an early marker she was mistaken as three unforced errors in the opening game handed Halep an unexpected gift of an early break.
Halep grew in stature and could not miss. Williams, on the other hand, looked tight and lacked feel.
There was strong support for Williams, including of the royal variety with friend Meghan Markle joining the Duchess of Cambridge in a crammed Royal Box.
But it was Halep who wowed the fans, haring across the turf to whip a superb backhand on her way to a second break which she sealed with a flashing backhand return winner.
Williams served 45 aces en route to the final but it was Halep who served the first one on Saturday to move 4-0 ahead.
It was 13 minutes before Williams even got the scoreboard ticking. “Wake up Serena” someone yelled as Halep served for the first set at 5-2. It fell on deaf ears as a shanked forehand return ended the set after 26 minutes.
Halep knew there would be a backlash and Williams raised the decibel level at the start of the second set, bent double, fists clenched and bellowing after a volleyed winner.
Williams led 2-1 but Halep’s scampering was making her play an extra shot in every rally, many of which were wild ones.
At 2-2 Halep scooped up a ball she had no right to reach and Williams lurched forward to blaze a backhand long.
The end came quickly. Halep broke again for 5-2 and showed no nerves as she calmly held to claim the title Williams craved.
Reporting by Martyn Herman; Editing by Toby Davis and Clare Fallon