Sunday, 5 June 2016
Serena Williams’s Toughest Rival, This Time, Isn’t Herself
PARIS — Serena Williams versus Serena Williams is supposed to be the internal conflict that decides Grand Slam tournaments in this long-running, top-heavy era in women’s tennis.
But on Saturday, with the French Openon the line, it looked very much like a fair fight between Serena Williams and Garbiñe Muguruza.
A tall and elegant Spaniard who is 12 years younger than Williams, Muguruza has serious stage presence: shoulders back and chin held high. She now has the major title to match, and with her handling the moment and Williams’s big-occasion aura as well as she did on Saturday in her 7-5, 6-4 victory, it is hard not to imagine her managing another such moment with similar aplomb in the near future.
“We’ve been saying Serena always beats herself, but today maybe she didn’t play her best tennis but she didn’t play badly either,” said Martina Navratilova, the 18-time Grand Slam singles champion. “She lost to somebody who stood up to her and did not play not to lose. Garbiñe played to win. It’s nice to see.”
There were many moments when the upset bid could have unraveled; many occasions when she needed to display strength and resolve to keep Williams from shifting the momentum.
There was the fourth game of the match, when Muguruza fought off a break point with an ace. And the final game of the first set, when she rallied from 15-40 with more clutch serving.
There was her response after she made three of her nine double faults in a single game to lose her serve and a 1-0 lead in the second set. The response was a flurry of big-bang tennis that allowed her to break Williams straight
Above all, there was the way Muguruza responded after failing to convert on four championship points on Williams’s serve at 5-3 in the second set.
Many a Williams opponent would have taken the hint and the runner-up plate. Muguruza served out the match at love, pushing forward and attempting to resolve the conflict instead of hoping it might resolve itself.
“She didn’t shrink from the pressure; she embraced it,” said Navratilova, a great champion who needed time to learn how to manage her own nerves on the biggest occasions. “It would have been so easy to just bag it after she had those four match points.”
The memory of upsetting Williams, 6-2, 6-2, in the second round of the French Open in 2014 almost certainly helped. The experience of facing Williams in last year’s Wimbledon final most likely did, as well.
Wimbledon was Muguruza’s major final debut, and Williams won in straight sets to claim her 21st Grand Slam singles title and complete her second Serena Slam by winning a fourth consecutive major.
But nearly one year later, Williams is still chasing No. 22, while three women have now won their first Grand Slam titles: Flavia Pennetta at last year’s United States Open, Angelique Kerber at this year’s Australian Open and now Muguruza.
“I think it’s great that there are new faces and that players now know that it is possible to win, to defeat Serena,” Muguruza said. “I think it’s a breath of fresh air.”
It looked like a downbeat year for Spain when Rafael Nadal, the nine-time men’s champion, had to withdraw after two rounds with an injury to his left wrist. Instead, Spain got to celebrate twice on the final weekend as Muguruza and then the Spanish men’s doubles team of Feliciano López and Marc López won titles on Philippe Chatrier Court on the same afternoon.
Nadal sent a congratulatory message to Muguruza, who said one of the first thoughts she had afterward was to wonder how on earth Nadal managed to win nine French Opens.
For now, she seems delighted with one, which makes her the first Spanish woman to win the singles title since Arantxa Sánchez Vicario won the last of her three French Opens in 1998. Sánchez was in the front row of the president’s box on Saturday.
“I opened the way for Spanish woman to win here,” said Sánchez. “But I’m delighted that Garbiñe has reopened it now. She has a great future in front of her.”
It was a victory for Spain but also for Venezuela. Muguruza is a dual citizen who was born in Caracas to a Venezuelan mother and a Spanish father. She feels her dual identity very strongly and chose to officially represent Spain in 2014 only because the Fed Cup and the Olympics made a choice necessary.
But her roots in Spanish tennis run deep. After moving to Spain at an early age, she trained near Barcelona at the Bruguera Tennis Academy, which was founded by Lluís Bruguera, a remarkable coach and the father of the two-time French Open men’s champion Sergi Bruguera.
Muguruza’s flat-hitting, go-for-broke game bears little resemblance to the more patient, topspin-heavy approach of Sergi Bruguera or Sánchez’s domestic rival Conchita Martínez. But Muguruza has the power and the charisma to start a new Spanish school, and though she is hardly a steady flame at this stage (this was her first final of the year), she would appear to possess the sort of internal drive that serial Grand Slam champions like Williams require.
This after all is the young woman who, when she missed half the 2013 season because of foot surgery, chose to bring a chair out to the practice court and continue hitting balls from a seated position.