Angelique Kerber has been here before. In her career-best season of 2016 – during which she won both hard-court slams – Kerber also reached the Wimbledon final.
Yet her dream of emulating childhood idol Steffi Graf was swept aside in just 81 minutes, as Serena Williams turned in such a peerless serving performance that Kerber was often relegated to the status of a spectator.
Two years later, Kerber is back, after much soul-searching and self-discovery. Starting the 2017 season as world No. 1 turned out to be a burden for this charming but understated woman, who felt her poise disintegrating interview by interview, photoshoot by photoshoot.
At the start of 2018, Kerber decided it was time to put herself first. As a result, her performances in press conferences might have slipped, but those on the match court have been revitalised. Kerber reached the semi-final of the Australian Open and the quarter-finals of the French Open, losing to world No. 1 Simona Halep both times.
Halep fell in the third round here, but another major champion – Jelena Ostapenko, who won at Roland Garros last year – stood in Kerber’s way yesterday. If the best tennis matches are contrasts of styles, this first semi-final should have been a classic.
Ostapenko plays tennis the way we all play in our dreams: swashbuckling power and freedom off both wings, with the occasional deft drop shot to break up the blitzkrieg. Whereas Kerber’s chief virtue is her obduracy.
Yesterday’s rallies involved rapier thrusts from one end and desperate parries from the other. Unusually for a sport that usually favours the brave, defence overcame attack on this occasion. The match felt like it was being played on fast-forward, and Kerber came away a 6-3, 6-3 winner after just 68 minutes.
“Last year, things weren’t like I was expecting actually,” said Kerber afterwards. “Now I want to make the priority to playing tennis, to focusing on just what I love, finding my motivation back.”
Disappointingly, this was the third straight year that Wimbledon’s women’s semi-finals had failed to deliver a deciding set between them. For the last three-setter on the second Thursday, you have to go back to Garbine Muguruza’s 6-2, 3-6, 6-3 win over Agnieszka Radwanska in 2015.
Part of the problem is the high turnover of the women’s game. Yesterday was only Ostapenko’s second major semi-final, while Julia Goerges – who was crushed 6-2, 6-4 by Serena Williams – was appearing on this stage for the first time.
In Ostapenko’s case, she became disheartened by her high error count much too quickly. Playing the way she does – which involves rolling the dice on almost every shot – requires an ability to absorb the inevitable misses and keep pushing forward. Halep spoke about this at the presentation ceremony after Ostapenko’s French Open triumph, saying “Enjoy it, be happy and keep it going because you're like a kid."
She still had some memorable moments. The velocity of her backhand, in particular, drew audible gasps from the crowd. But this was a useful lesson for a woman who only turned 21 last month. “Ostapenko is young,” said Billie Jean King on the BBC’s coverage. “She plays young. Too many errors.” But she will be back, and next time some of those missiles are sure to land.
As for Kerber credited her team with “helping me good to come back, to believe in me again”. The key man in her corner – coach Wim Fissette – was also at Johanna Konta’s side when she played the semi-final here last year. Given his excellent record, anyone might think that Konta made a tactical error when she dumped Fissette at the end of last season.
Kerber into the final
Kerber hangs around to sign a few autographs while Ostapenko wasn't hanging around to walk off with the Wimbledon finalist.
Here are Kerber's thoughts:
"It was a tough match. Jelena plays great tennis, she hits the balls hard. It's such a great feeling to be back in the final here. I'm really excited.
"She's always fighting until the last point. You have to win the last one and then it's over. It's tough but I'm happy that I'm through.
"It doesn't matter who I face in the final. I will just go out and try and win the match."
Ostapenko* 3-6, 3-6 Kerber
Great play from Ostapenko drilling a forehand down the line. She's found her range again. But just as Ostapenko steps up her level, so does Kerber who squats down low to strike a beautiful forehand winner. A power puff second serve doesn't help Kerber's cause and the German is clearly tight out there. Thankfully she sends down a first serve which Ostapenko strikes long but then loops a forehand long to hand Ostapenko another break point. A body serve saves the danger and when Ostapenko dumps a second serve into the middle, Kerber brings up a second match point. A first serve goes begging but she shows great defence to draw the mistake from Ostapenko which eventually arrives. GAME, SET AND MATCH: KERBER BEATS OSTAPENKO 6-3, 6-3
Ostapenko 3-6, 3-5 Kerber* (*denotes next server)
Ostapenko has positive body language again as she eases to three game points before a deep reply from Kerber catches her out on the baseline. Another deep, deep forehand proves problematic for the 13th seed but she hands the service baton back to Kerber. Can she serve it out this time?
Ostapenko* 3-6, 2-5 Kerber (*denotes next server)
Kerber just keeps on ticking along nicely and it's a matter of seconds now that she books a place in the final. But wait, there's still a little bit of life let in Ostapenko's championships as she sends down a forehand winner for 30-all. Ostapenko brings up a break point with another winner down the line and is the comeback of all comebacks on? A solid first serve from Kerber saves the danger for deuce. Kerber invites the backhand volley with a mishit during the next point but saves a second break point with an ace down the middle. She looks cool as a cucumber out there. Now she has a match point when Ostapenko slaps into the middle but the Latvian keeps firing with another winner. A slip to the ground puts Ostapenko back in the driving seat and the youngster finally has her first break of the match. Great fighting spirit, but is it all too late? OSTAPENKO BREAKS.
Ostapenko 3-6, 1-5 Kerber* (*denotes next server)
Another error strewn game from Ostapenko as a double fault and over-hit forehand gift-wrap another two points to Kerber for 30-all. A pull into the tramlines draws an outcry from Ostapenko who drops her racket in despair. Kerber has another break point and she takes it when she shows great defence and allows Ostapenko to make yet another error. What a shame. Is this match going to even last an hour? KERBER BREAKS.
Ostapenko* 3-6, 1-4 Kerber (*denotes next server)
Maybe Ostapenko does know how to reel in her big guns and not always go for broke. She takes a calmer controlled approach to the opening rally to good effect and then volleys a short return deep to the corner to sneak ahead at 15-30. Great play from Kerber though to dampen her spirits, striking low into the corner and then watching Ostapenko hit a weak reply into the middle. That's her 30th unforced error of the match compared to four from Kerber. Another error, this time on the backhand wing and Kerber restores her three-game cushion.
Ostapenko 3-6, 1-3 Kerber* (*denotes next server)
Oor, er. Ostapenko gives up during one rally almost expecting a forehand return cross court from Kerber to drift long only to watch it land inside the line. Kerber calmly looks down at her racket at moving to 30-all but then can't get up and under a first serve from Ostapenko. Actually it's nicely done from the Latvian as she safely steers her way out of danger and on the board this set.
Ostapenko* 3-6, 0-3 Kerber (*denotes next server)
Ostapenko strikes her 22nd winner of the match but it's the only point she gets on the board as Kerber sustains her efficient play from the baseline. Ostapenko needs to snap herself out of a funk soon before the match runs away from her.
Ostapenko 3-6, 0-2 Kerber* (*denotes next server)
Ostapenko only knows one way of playing which is great when she's firing on all cylinders but not so good when she's being rushed. Kerber puts the heat on at 15-30 which soon turns into two break points as Kerber delivers a beautiful sliced backhand winner down the line. Ostapenko saves the first by curling a neat forehand down the line. But she can't save the second as she dumps a forehand into the middle. She looks to her corner and shakes her head. KERBER BREAKS.
Ostapenko* 3-6, 0-1 Kerber (*denotes next server)
Ostapenko's level has dropped from those opening few games where she was hitting and making 90% of her shots. Kerber is just ticking along at the other end, drawing the errors from her opponent but also just sitting back and allowing the 21-year-old to make her own sometimes rash decisions.
Ostapenko 3-6 Kerber* (*denotes next server)
The unforced errors starting to creep up now as Ostapenko gives one of the balls a look of disdain as she lines up for her next serve. She digs herself out of hole again at 15-30 but then strikes into the net to hand Kerber set point. Another missed first serve puts the pressure on. The second clips the top of the net and lands wide. Ostapenko has dropped her first set of these championships. KERBER WINS FIRST SET.
Ostapenko* 3-5 Kerber (*denotes next server)
Incredible accuracy from Kerber on his first serve, it's up at 86% compared to Ostapenko's 50%. The German advances to four game points before Ostapenko steps in to dispatch a forehand. Boom. She backs it up with a more delicate forehand into the corner to take her winners count to 17. Kerber prevents the Ostapenko recovery with two straight points, the second an outswinging ace.
Ostapenko 3-4 Kerber* (*denotes next server)
Pressure now for Ostapenko as she punches a return into the net to hand Kerber another look at a break point. The Latvian pins Kerber into the corner on the baseline, the German retrieves everything and then waits for Ostapenko to blink first. KERBER BREAKS.
Ostapenko* 3-3 Kerber (*denotes next server)
A couple of pulls into the tramlines and Kerber moves 30-0 up on her serve. The German's serving well and Ostapenko is having much joy on her returns currently. A forehand slice deep to the baseline causes Kerber trouble and Ostapenko rallies to 40-30 and then deuce when Kerber strikes into the tape. Kerber mutters her frustration towards her corner at facing break point, but then strikes her first ace of the match at the most crucial moment. That was gutsy. Kerber holds strong and it remains on serve.
Ostapenko 3-2 Kerber* (*denotes next server)
Chance now for Kerber at 15-30 after Ostapenko loops a drop shot into the net. The Latvian misses her first serve and Kerber edges closer to the baseline to receive a second serve. It's a terrific outswinging second serve which allows Ostapenko the chance to mob up the return. Another miss on the forehand wing allows Kerber a break point shot but this time the Latvian is able to dig out a first serve. At advantage, Ostapenko relies on her big forehand again to do the business.
Ostapenko* 2-2 Kerber (*denotes next server)
A clean game from Kerber with a hold to love which owes much to her solid serving with four first-serves proving too difficult for Ostapenko to handle.
Ostapenko 2-1 Kerber* (*denotes next server)
Poise and touch again from Ostapenko before Kerber gets her first winner on the board with a cracking service return. The Latvian turns to her drop shot again which has Kerber pointlessly scampering towards the net. A couple of unforced errors allow Kerber back in the game to deuce but a second ace and forehand winner get her over the line.
Ostapenko* 1-1 Kerber (*denotes next server)
Kerber gets the luck of the green with a ball that clips the net cord favourably. Ostapenko takes her chances at the net and gets the timing on a volley completely off. She shows nice touch during the next point, delicately sending a well-weighted drop shot out of Kerber's reach for 30-all. Ostapenko are started stronger against the nervous Kerber but the German manages to steer her way through her opening service game.
Ostapenko 1-0 Kerber* (*denotes next server)
Shaky start as Ostapenko opens with a double fault. She responds in the contrasting style she knows best with two forehand winners, the second one which throws Kerber off balance at the baseline for 30-all. Ostapenko opts for the opposite corner with her forehand but drags into the tramlines to hand Kerber a first break point but this time the Latvian flips to the backhand wing to strike a winner for deuce. She backs it up by stepping midway into court to dispatch another winner off her backhand and wraps up her hold with an ace down the T.
The players are out
Kerber and Ostapenko are out on Centre Court going through their warm-ups. John McEnroe's looking forward to this one - especially watching Ostapenko again.
"She's got a wry smile all the time, you don't always know what she's going to do and get a feeling that she doesn't know what she's going to do.
"She's a breath of fresh air."
Latvian has the fresher legs
Ostapenko has yet to drop a set these championships and spent one hour and 27 minutes less time on court compared to today's opponent Kerber who has spent seven hours and 40 minutes charging up and down the baseline to reach this point.
The German has dropped one set this fortnight, in the second round against America's Claire Liu. Her quickest win, surprisingly was her 6-2, 6-4 defeat of Japan's 18th seed and talented upcomer in Naomi Osaka which took just one hour and four minutes. Equally surprisingly is that her longest match came in the first round against Briton Katy Dunne which lasted one hour 34 minutes.
Ostapenko motivated to win more majors
The Ostapenko knows what it's like to pick up a trophy at Wimbledon. The 21-year-old won the junior title here four years ago and secured her maiden grand slam title at the French Open last year.
"Of course it's a big advantage that I have already a grand slam in my pocket because I had this opportunity to play those big matches already.
"But here is a completely different surface, different grand slam, all different. I have all this motivation to just win another one."
Head to head count
Surprisingly, this will be the first meeting between these two and Kerber said after her quarter-final win that both women will head into their semi-final as equals.
"I think there are no favourites any more. We are in the semis right now. I'm not looking left or right. I'm not looking about the others. I'm really taking care about my game, about my matches, about how I play on court. This is all I care about actually, to be honest.
"I think she (Ostapenko) is tricky opponent. That's why she is also so good. She's played so many good matches in the last few months. She won Indian Wells, also beat top players."
Ostapenko or Kerber? It's too tight to call
The Wimbledon championships have ignited the last couple of days with the competitive women's quarter-finals on Tuesday and the stunning performances and shocks in the men's last eight yesterday.
Today's women's semi-finals should provide us with another exciting day, especially the blockbuster opener on Centre Court which features two grand slam champions in Jelena Ostapenko and Angeliquer Kerber.
After the depletion of the women's top 10 seeds, Kerber is the highest seed left in the draw at 11 and has experience of going deep at Wimbledon after finishing runner-up two years ago.
Ostapenko, meanwhile, the 12th seed, has reached new ground at SW19 in only her fourth appearance. The 2017 French Open reached last year's quarter-finals and has backed it up with another sensational run this time around. After disappointing early exits at the Australian and French Open this year, the Latvian is clearly starting to find her feet on grass.
It will be an interesting battle between a lights out player in Ostapenko and counter-puncher in Kerber and one which, on paper, should go the distance. The pair will be on court at 1pm with the second semi-final between seven-times champion Serena Williams and first-time grand slam semi-finalist Julia Goerges following.