The 2021 edition of The Championships saw its fair share of shocks and upsets, but with Ashleigh Barty, Angelique Kerber, Karolina Pliskova and Aryna Sabalenka, Wimbledon's Final Four features the current World No.1, a former champion, a former No.1, and the No.2 seed. And each woman is on her own unique path toward what would feel like a crowning achievement.
The World No.1 is looking to become the fourth woman in the Open Era to win Wimbledon after a triumph as a junior. Barty was just 15 when she hoisted the girls' title in 2011, a win that put her on the tennis sporting map and made her the focus for the future of Australian tennis.
That pressure proved too much for humble Queenslander. When she chose to walk away from tennis three years later, in 2014, Barty was sick of the traveling grind of the tour, and though she had great success with Casey Dellacqua in doubles, she had yet to break into the Top 100.
Flash-forward seven years and the 25-year-old is the World No.1, in the fifth month of her protracted leave from the comfortable confines of Australia, and two wins away from the Wimbledon title.
"One day I would love to be the champion here," Barty said. "It's a dream. It's a goal. Dreams don't always come true, but you can fight and do everything you can to give yourself that opportunity. That's been a lot of my learnings over the last two years as a person, not just as a professional tennis player, but as a person, is putting my hopes and dreams out into the universe and chasing them.
"You can dare to dream, you can try and dream big. There's certainly nothing wrong with that."
It's not often that Barty states her ambitions out loud. But Wimbledon is different. To win the most prestigious tournament in tennis, on the surface she loves so dearly, in the very place where her junior triumph set all the wheels in motion for her tennis journey? All while wearing a dress honoring the 50th anniversary of her friend and mentor Evonne Goolagong Cawley's first Wimbledon title? That's storybook stuff.
It may seem preposterous that the 2018 champion who just won her 80th career grass-court match - a tally that sits only behind Serena and Venus Williams among active players - to advance to her fourth Wimbledon semifinal, is seeded No.25. But that is no misprint next to Kerber's name, a testament to just how remarkable her sudden, three-week run on grass has been.
It was just three years ago that Kerber stunned Serena Williams in the Wimbledon final in straight sets to win her third major title. She would finish the 2018 season ranked No.2. Though she has enjoyed some highs since, Kerber's grinding potency began to wane. After making the 2019 Eastbourne final, where she lost in three sets to Pliskova, Kerber won just four matches for the rest of the season. Coming off last year's Covid-interrupted season, Kerber struggled for traction for much of 2021. Going into Bad Homburg the week before Wimbledon, she had won just nine matches this year and had not beaten a Top 20 player in two years.
But as the sporting cliché goes, form is temporary, class is permanent. Kerber hasn't lost a match since. In Bad Homburg, where she won her first title since 2018 Wimbledon, it was Kerber's three-set nail-biting win over Petra Kvitova that seemed to unlock her best tennis and her indefatigable fighting spirit. At Wimbledon, it was her 3-hour, 19-minute epic against Sara Sorribes Tormo in the second round, a match that pushed her mental and physical resolve to the limit.
Kerber has been reinvigorated by her title run on home soil. A second Wimbledon title would solidify her as one of the best grass-court players of her generation - only Serena and Venus have more Wimbledon semifinal appearances among active players.
When the dam breaks, so comes the flood. At least that's what Aryna Sabalenka is hoping. The No.2 seed finally broke her Round of 16 barrier Monday to make her first major quarterfinal, and she responded by playing her best match of the tournament to oust Ons Jabeur in straight sets. Now into her first major semifinal, the biggest question for the Belarusian is whether she can hold her nerve.
In contrast to the other three semifinalists, this is all new territory for the youngest woman left in the draw. She has the firepower to blow anyone off the court on any given day but had won only one match at the All England Club before last week, and that came all the way back in 2017.
With Sabalenka and Pliskova facing off for a spot in their first Wimbledon final, it's a clash of the two active women who many consider the best players yet to win a major. Still young at just 23, the same age as Naomi Osaka, Sabalenka confessed her struggles to get past the Round of 16 weighed on her mind.
"After every Slam I was so disappointed [with] myself that I [couldn't] handle this pressure," Sabalenka said. "I actually thought that I will never make it to the second week. We worked a lot with my psychologist and with my coach.
"Really happy that here in Wimbledon I'm on the second week, I'm still in the tournament, and I still have this opportunity to win a Slam. I will do everything I can to reach my goal."
Pliskova's semifinal run has come as a surprise to everyone except the Czech. Aside from making the Rome final in May, Pliskova's subpar results have not matched her own evaluation of her level. On the first Monday of Wimbledon, Pliskova's streak of 230 weeks in the Top 10 ended, when she slid to No.13. People were quick to offer her their opinions.
"I was five years in Top 10. Then one week I'm not in the Top 10, and it's like huge drama, especially in my country," Pliskova said. "I think these things, they just don't help."
"Players or even [former players], they would usually come and say, 'What happened there? Why are you not playing that well?' I think also because of the way I am, I think people think I can handle a lot, which is maybe true. But I don't need to hear all of this. Usually, I have an answer, but not always [are] you ready for that. You don't want to hear these things, no matter whether it's true or not."
While Sabalenka is in the early stages of her quest for a major title, Pliskova is into her fourth Slam semifinal and, with Wimbledon, became the 28th player in the Open Era to reach the semifinals of all four Slams. Of those 28, only five did not or have not won a Slam: Elena Dementieva, Mary Joe Fernandez, Andrea Jaeger, Dinara Safina and - the only active player among the group - Pliskova. The 29-year-old is one of just six active players to own a complete set of Slam semifinals, joining Serena Williams, Venus Williams, Kim Clijsters, Simona Halep and Victoria Azarenka.
There isn't much that Pliskova hasn't accomplished in her career. To play her big-hitting, aggressive game at such a consistent level for so many years, winning 16 titles across all surfaces - more than the other three semifinalists - and holding the No.1 spot in 2017, Pliskova has defiantly built an outstanding career. Not bad for a player that wasn't even considered the best Pliskova as a junior - that would be her twin sister Kristyna - and who many wrote off as either too slow or too one-dimensional. A Wimbledon title would be Pliskova's way of getting the last word.