Overshadowed by the prospect of the historic men’s final, the Wimbledon women’s final looks likely at first glance to follow in the tradition of routs at such championship matches on the women’s side, both this season and at majors more generally. On one side of the net stands a four-time Wimbledon champion contesting her eighteenth major final and aiming to take one stride closer to establishing herself as one of the greatest female athletes ever after victories over two of the next generation’s most talented stars. On the other side of the net stands a first-time major finalist who never has won more than four games from her fabled opponent, has exploited an especially accommodating draw, and has succumbed to a respiratory infection this week. So authoritatively has Serena trampled elite resistance in her last two matches that Kvitova and Azarenka in fact showcased impressive tennis for extended periods—and yet still couldn’t salvage a set. Four aces from the tournament’s ace record by a woman, Serena set a new record for a single match against one of the WTA’s premier returners in just two sets. Losing her serve only once in those two matches against top-five opponents, she has relied on the impenetrability of her own delivery to menace those of her opponents with impunity. Scarcely does she resemble the tentative, visibly aging champion who dropped serve three times in her opener and hung on by the ends of her manicure against Zheng. The rust has fallen off her weapons, the intimidating aura has resurfaced with the steely focus, and the engravers might as well etch her name on the Wimbledon wall of champions right now because poor Agnieszka Radwanska will spend Saturday afternoon staring in disbelief as returns of her pitiful serves fly past her for majestic winners.
Well, maybe. But most observers sketched a similarly bleak narrative for Serena’s similarly major-less challenger in New York last fall, only to watch it implode in their faces as Stosur actually dared to rise to the occasion. That courageous act of rebellion against the grande dame of the WTA showed how far a fearless confidence can carry a competitor faced with such daunting odds. Also exposed by this memorable result, Serena’s nerves hampered her in the pursuit of a goal that she wanted almost too much for her own good. Open about how much she desires this Wimbledon title, no doubt one of the sweetest of her career if she secures it, the 13-time major champion must manage the moment more firmly this time rather than allowing it to manage her. Adept at awakening nerves in her opponents, Radwanska has developed greater immunity to them over the past year, as demonstrated by her sterling performance in finals. Undefeated in her last six finals starting with Carlsbad last summer, she has not dropped her serve in three of them and has defeated top-ten opponents in a different three. In both of those categories was her strongest performance of her career to date, a victory over Sharapova in the Miami final that featured just one total service break in each set. Radwanska must recognize that she will win this final by a similar margin if she wins it at all, for the prospects of luring Serena into a cascade of breaks look unrealistic. But her ability to vary pace and spin can fracture the rhythm that the American prefers in rallies, often compensating for her lack of an imposing serve. Moreover, Radwanska’s stingy defense yielded just six unforced errors in her semifinal, attaining a level of consistency that flusters opponents who know that they will receive hardly any free points at all.
For all of her imaginative tactics, and all of the courage that she can muster, however, Radwanska still might not overcome the massive differential in point-starting shots that separates her from Serena. Although her embarrassment at the American’s hands four years ago at Wimbledon bears little relevance to a player so greatly improved, that basic dynamic of their rivalry remains the same. Whoever wins Wimbledon in 2012 will become the seventh different women’s champion at the last seven majors, an astonishing statistic in an era of unprecedented depth and flux for the sport. Whereas a triumph for Radwanska would add yet another layer of intrigue to a WTA stacked with narratives, a fourteenth crown for Serena would add another chapter to the longest, most textured narrative of all.