WIMBLEDON, England — For the third time since her return to tennis, Serena Williams was one victory away from equaling Margaret Court’s record of 24 Grand Slam singles titles.
For the third time, Williams faltered, losing the Wimbledon final Saturday to Simona Halep, 6-2, 6-2.
“She really played out of her mind, so congratulations, Simona,” Williams said in an on-court interview.
Asked if she had ever played a better match than that, Halep said, “Never.”
It was the 11th Wimbledon final for Williams. It was the first for Halep, but Halep made the new opportunity count, becoming the first Romanian player to win a singles title at the All England Club.
She was once resistant to the charms of grass court tennis, preferring the sport’s slower, higher-bouncing surfaces.
But in this year’s tournament, with the victories piling up, she declared that her attitude had changed.
“I love grass,” she said after reaching the semifinals. “It’s the first time when I say that.”
She continued: “It’s a little bit dangerous when you play on grass because the feet are not really as stable as you are on hardcourt or a clay court. That’s why I prefer those surfaces. But now I started to feel it, to have it in my hands, to have it in my legs and also in my mind, which is very important.”
Halep, 27, won her first major singles title at the French Open last year after losing her first three Grand Slam finals.
She was disappointed when she failed to successfully defend her French Open title last month, losing in the quarterfinals with the draw opening up. But it also took away some pressure.
“Something clicked after losing at the French Open,” said Virginia Ruzici, Halep’s longtime manager, who won the 1978 French Open. “It was like something woke up inside her, the ambition.”
She received a pre-Wimbledon pep talk from her adviser Ion Tiriac, a former player who has become one of the wealthiest men in Romania and who long managed tennis stars like Ilie Nastase, Guillermo Vilas and Boris Becker.
“He cannot help himself from telling her things about tactics and technique and anything he can get into her head,” Ruzici said.
Halep also consulted with her former coach Darren Cahill, who helped her rise to No. 1 and to win a French Open title before taking a break from coaching this season.
“I think Simona really had it clearly in her mind that she wanted to do good things here,” Ruzici said.
Now she has done the best thing possible: winning the title and defeating Williams, the greatest player of this era, for only the second time in 11 matches.
After the birth of her daughter, Olympia in 2017, Williams returned to competition in February 2018.
But she is now 0-3 in major finals since her comeback and has yet to win any tournament.
At age 37, she was the oldest Grand Slam women’s singles finalist of the Open era.
“I don’t know what is harder, playing after having a child or playing deep into your 30s,” said Martina Navratilova, who won nine singles titles at Wimbledon.
Williams has often made success look easy through the years with her incomparable serve, aggressive returns, easy baseline power and explosive ability to cover the court.
But the quest for No. 24 has been arduous. Members of her team questioned whether she should make a comeback after Olympia’s birth. Williams had passed Steffi Graf’s Open era record of 22 major singles titles, winning each of the Grand Slam titles at least three times.
“It would have been a perfect moment to walk away, but I wanted more,” she said in an interview last year.
In her first season back, she lost in the Wimbledon final to Angelique Kerber and in the U.S. Open final to Naomi Osaka. The loss to Osaka was particularly traumatic. She was penalized a game by the chair umpire Carlos Ramos for a series of code-of-conduct violations, which turned the crowd against Ramos and, to a lesser degree, against Osaka, who ended up in tears during the award ceremony after winning her first Grand Slam title.
Williams said that she sought counseling to cope with the emotional fallout and eventually wrote a letter of apology to Osaka. She did not compete again until January this year, squandering four match points and a 5-1 third-set lead after twisting her left ankle in a quarterfinal loss to Karolina Pliskova at the Australian Open.
She competed little after that setback because of recurring knee tendinitis, playing just six completed matches before arriving in Wimbledon.
But she said she arrived pain free after treatment in France, and as so often in her phenomenal career, she gathered momentum in a hurry. After a shaky performance in the second round against Kaja Juvan, a Slovene qualifier, Williams was sharp in straight-set victories over Julia Görges and Carla Suárez Navarro and then fought her way past the unseeded American Alison Riske, 6-4, 4-6, 6-3, in the quarterfinals.
She then played one of the most impressive matches of her comeback in the semifinals, striking 19 aces and overwhelming the Czech veteran Barbora Strycova, 6-1, 6-2.
But Williams could not continue her streak against Halep. Her next chance to tie Court: the U.S. Open, which begins next month.