Wimbledon semi-finals: Serena Williams faces Strycova test in pursuit of grand slam history
Two more wins will secure a record-equalling 24th major, but it is far from certain given the form of her semi-final opponent and her own patchy displays
Serena Williams is just two wins away from a record-equalling 24th grand slam title and while she is favourite to reach that milestone at Wimbledon, it is far from the forgone conclusion it might have been during her peak years.
The 37-year-old seven-time champion had to draw on all her strength - physical and mental - to get past unseeded compatriot Alison Riske in the quarter-finals and faces another grass court loving opponent in Barbora Strycova in Thursday's semi-finals.
The 33-year-old Czech veteran - the oldest player to play in a woman's semi-final for the first time - has found the thought of retirement a spur for playing some of her finest tennis and says she will step on to Centre Court "without any fear".
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The other semi-final pits two seeds against each other, seventh seed and former world No 1 Simona Halep against eighth seeded Ukrainian Elina Svitolina.
It says a lot about the turbulence of women's tennis that Williams is making her 12th semi-final appearance while of the other three only Halep has gone this far before, and that was back in 2014.
Williams is the colossus that still bestrides women's tennis, but there are chinks in her armour which have been exposed both at Wimbledon and in her last two grand slam finals.
Outplayed by Angelique Kerber in last year's Wimbledon final and then a spectacular meltdown in the US Open defeat by Naomi Osaka gives Strycova genuine hope of an upset.
Not that the diminutive Czech will require any: her form guide is as good as any of the semi-finalists having ousted four seeds on her way to the semi-final.
Williams's clay court campaign was affected by a knee injury but she has accrued invaluable extra game time by playing the mixed doubles with another former world number one, Andy Murray.
"This is the first time since Australia [ when she reached the quarter-finals of the Australian Open] that I actually felt good," Williams said.
"It's been a really, really long year for me already, and hard year, because I'm usually not typically injured. I don't know where I am. I do know I feel good."
However, Williams has still looked vulnerable and Strycova's speed round the court and array of shots will pay dividends if the American reproduces the leaden-footed performance she put up against Riske.
"She's good on the grass," Williams said of an opponent she has defeated three times without dropping a set, including the first round at Wimbledon seven years ago.
"She knows what to do. She has a good all-around game. She's incredibly tricky. It's definitely not easy. But it's something I'm definitely geared up for."
Strycova for her part described Williams as a great champion and amazing athlete but if that indicated she was intimidated think again.
"I don't have fear," the former world No 16 said. "I don't have such a power like Serena, but I have other weapons.
"I will try to use them as much as I can. I will enjoy. I have really at this point nothing to lose."
Halep favourite to reach final
Halep is favourite to prevail in the other clash, not only because of her greater experience and having won a grand slam in last year's French Open, but she says she has at last taken to grass after not being best suited to the surface when she lost to Eugenie Bouchard in the 2014 semi-final.
Halep showed this in impressing in her previous two matches dealing with the partisan crowd in beating 15-year-old Cori Gauff and then coming back from 4-1 down and break points in the first set against Zhang Shuai in her quarter-final.
"I'm a different person," said the 27-year-old Romanian. "Everything changed. I have a lot of experience now. I'm more confident. I love grass. It's first time when I say that."
Svitolina has at last broken the psychological barrier of reaching the semi-finals after four losing quarter-final appearances and she is determined to keep her run going.
"I am not going to give up the match easy," she said.
Updated: July 11, 2019 07:52 AM