LONDON — Serena Williams is into the Wimbledon final. Stop and let that breathe for a moment. Really soak in the improbability of what the 23-time Grand Slam champion has accomplished so far this tournament. Yes, Wimbledon is a Slam she has won seven times and one where she hasn’t dropped a match since 2014. Sure, she was playing in her 11th Wimbledon semifinal and was 29-5 in Grand Slam semis before walking onto Centre Court to play world No. 13 Julia Goerges on Thursday. But there is no statistic fantastic enough to convey the implausibility of the outcome — a 6-2, 6-4 win over Goerges that at once felt predetermined, yet unthinkable just a short time ago.
“This was not inevitable for me,” Williams said after the match, which took 70 minutes to complete. “I had a difficult birth, multiple surgeries, I almost didn’t make it. There was a time I could barely walk to my mailbox. It’s such a pleasure and a joy [to be in the final] because less than a year ago, I was going through so much.”
Just 10 months ago, Williams suffered life-threatening pulmonary embolisms after delivering her daughter, Olympia, via C-section. She remained on bed rest for several weeks afterward, unable to train until the end of the year. When she returned from maternity leave at Indian Wells in March, every baby step was celebrated. Outside expectations were couched. Win or lose, she was defying odds and outperforming even the most optimistic predictions for her first year back on tour. That changed last week.
From the moment she arrived at All England — heck, before she stepped Nike to perennial ryegrass — the aura around Williams felt different than in her previous three tournaments. In the week leading up to her first-round match against Viktoriya Tomova, Williams posted a daily countdown on Instagram that included flashback Wimbledon photos and uplifting sentiments. “In case no one’s told you yet today, I want to remind you that you are greater than your circumstances,” she wrote two days out, as if aware she was building up to something worth commemorating.
As top seed after top seed failed to advance past the early rounds, Serena sailed, dropping only one set in six matches. She played so brilliantly, moving around the court so well and hitting with such power that at some point, we stopped thinking about her as a woman overcoming improbable odds and instead started expecting the results of a player who had won six of the previous 10 Grand Slams she contested before announcing to the world she was pregnant. Suddenly, Williams’ place in another All England Club final began to seem all but assured — while also feeling like entirely too much to expect so soon.
“It’s been a crazy 10 months,” Williams said. “I was still pregnant at this time last year. That’s something I have to keep reminding myself. To hear people say, ‘Oh, she’s a favorite.’ Like, the last 16 months, I’ve played in four tournaments and was carrying another human half that time. It’s not frustrating, but it’s like, ‘C’mon, guys, this is pretty awesome.'”
After each win this fortnight, Williams returned to social media to post motivational memes — “Make this week greater than your last,” she wrote on Manic Monday — and in her news conferences, she openly shared the perspective she gained by becoming a mom. She talked about the power of walking into her matches knowing she has nothing to lose, a point of view she gained by losing almost everything.
“It’s mentally very, very difficult,” Williams said. “Having to deal with pulmonary embolisms is more mentally challenging because if I have a pain in my leg, I automatically go to the worst-case scenario. I didn’t know I would have such traumatic thoughts.”
That’s a revealing confession from a player who has appeared as mentally unflappable as any other woman in this tournament. As her top-seeded peers [correction: at No. 25, Williams would become the lowest seed ever to win Wimbledon] bent to the pressures of facing fearless underdogs, Williams approached every match knowing her opponents would play their best tennis against her, and elevated her own game in response.
Goerges, who hit 20 winners and managed a break against Williams in the second set, said she was honored Williams brought her A-game to Centre Court. “I think that she steps up her game [against me],” Goerges said. “That shows that she has a lot of respect for me, really going for her shots.”
Williams needs to win, but one more match to claim her eighth Wimbledon title and her 24th Grand Slam title and etch her name alongside Margaret Court’s as the winningest Grand Slam champion in history. Two years ago, she faced Angelique Kerber in the final here at Wimbledon, which Williams won in straight sets. Until the start of this tournament, that was the last match Williams played at Wimbledon. Williams faces Kerber again Saturday, but a lot has happened since that last match.
“Believe me, I know she wants to go out there and win. So do I,” Williams said. “I think it will be just like the last final; it will be really good. But this is different. I have to be ready for the match of my life.”
ESPN’s Nicolas Pereira breaks down all the action from the women’s semifinals, which saw Serena Williams and Angelique Kerber cruise into the Wimbledon final.
As for her focus on winning No. 24?
“I don’t want to limit myself,” Williams said. “I think that’s what I was doing in the past. I was limiting myself. It’s just a number. I want to get as many as I can, starting with … ” Williams paused, realizing she, too, was getting ahead of herself.
“I still have a match to win,” she said. “So I’m not even there yet.”