After Serena Williams saw her dreams of an eighth Wimbledon title ended at the hands of an inspired Simona Halep, the US great may never get a better chance to win that elusive record-equaling 24th Grand Slam.
In the end, it was the kind of comprehensive defeat that Williams herself is so used to dishing out in Grand Slam finals; a straight sets victory and a display of utter dominance from the outset.
This time, though, Williams was on the receiving end as she was blitzed at Wimbledon on Saturday by the whirlwind force of Romania’s Halep.
READ MORE: Simona Halep blitzes Serena Williams to win Wimbledon title
For seventh seed Halep, it was a maiden title at the All England Club and a second Grand Slam for the 27-year-old to add to last year’s French Open title.
For Williams, it means her wait to equal Australian great Margaret Court’s tally of 24 Slams goes on.
It was a third consecutive defeat in a Major final and fifth loss in Williams’ last seven appearances on the biggest of stages in women’s tennis.
Heading into Saturday’s final, things had seemed so different for Williams; she appeared calm, collected, and well-placed to end her finals losing streak and win her first Slam since the Australian Open of 2017.
But in Halep, a woman a decade her junior, she ran into a force of nature who produced what she described as the best match she had ever played.
That, for Williams, is the problem as she battles younger, more agile opponents as time threatens to finally catch up with the woman who has bestrode the sport for more than a decade.
Williams won the title in Melbourne in 2017 while eight weeks pregnant with her daughter Olympia, and after giving birth through an unplanned caesarean section she went on to develop a potentially a life-threatening blood clot in her lung.
It has taken a superhuman effort from Williams to assert herself at the top of the sport again. That she even reached the Wimbledon final last year, just three months after her comeback, was remarkable and testament to her prodigious drive and determination.
Once there, she met an inspired Angelique Kerber, losing in straight sets – just as she has done this year to Halep.
She battled to the final at Flushing Meadows in New York last season, again falling without registering a set, on that occasion to the rising young star of Naomi Osaka.
The controversy surrounding Williams’ meltdown at the umpire in that game took time to settle down, and she did not play again for the remainder of 2018. She also revealed in an article published during Wimbledon just how much that episode had taken out of her.
This year, her appearances and form had been stop-start: a quarter-final exit at the Australian Open in January, a third-round exit at Roland-Garros.
But at Wimbledon, she appeared to have put all those concerns behind her, setting up what seemed her best chance at ending that wait for the elusive 24th Slam.
Williams served supremely during her run to the final; her ground strokes were solid, her court coverage exceptional.
But when it came to the crunch, she was no match for a fired-up Halep.
Williams had won nine of the previous 10 encounters between the pair, but on Saturday it proved a step too far.
This is the reality for Williams as she fights for the victory that will put her in the highest bracket of overall Grand Slams – a place that many feel she deserves due to her relentless hold over the women’s game for the past decade.
Things will not get easier as age inevitably takes its toll, even for someone such as Williams who has done such a stupendous job of defying it so far.
Williams is a fierce competitor, but, as she knows only too well, finding form and fitness over the two weeks of a Grand Slam is an incredibly difficult process.
If you beat one pretender, another will step in, just as hungry, in the next round.
We have seen the rise of the likes of Osaka in the past year, while Wimbledon saw the emergence of a new star-in-the-making in Cori Gauff.
Battle-hardened players such as Halep remain determined and at the prime age of their careers.
Williams herself has played down her quest for Grand Slam number 24, suggesting that it will not come to define her legacy.
“No matter what I do, I will always have a great career,” she said ahead of Saturday’s final.
She’s right: few have had the impact on the women’s game that she has had, or ever will.
But for her and her legion of fans, number 24 would help settle the debate over her greatness, and put her on that highest of pedestals in women’s tennis, at least numerically.
Saturday’s final was a big missed opportunity – at 37 years old, Serena Williams may not get another.
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