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Steve Flink: Muguruza Validates Status as Front Line Player

WIMBLEDON— To a wide range of learned observers, it had seemed entirely possible that Venus Williams was going to win the world's most prestigious title this year. She lost only one set in six matches on her way to a ninth singles final on the Centre Court. Her level of play against French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko and Great Britain's Johanna Konta was first rate, and the way she was performing in those contests seemed to suggest that she was peaking propitiously. There were, however, just as many established enthusiasts who believed it was a wide open match that Garbiñe Muguruza could win if she held her nerve, surpassed Venus on the big points and played at her zenith.

In the end, that is precisely what happened. The closing stages of the opening set turned this contest upside down as Muguruza escaped from double set point down and never looked back. The turnaround was startling in many ways as the 37-year-old faded unmistakably and somewhat inexplicably, losing her bid for a sixth singles title. Not only that, but the popular American conceded the last nine games of the match with sharply diminished energy and enthusiasm and seemingly a fatalistic streak, almost a sense of doom.

As Venus deteriorated so flagrantly over the course of the second set, as the glaring mistakes mounted and her self conviction evaporated, it was strikingly apparent that something was fundamentally wrong with her mindset and her conditioning. Muguruza, meanwhile, was downright magnificent. The combination of Venus's collapsing game and psyche along with the Spaniard's outstanding defense, counter-attacking and aggressive ball striking resulted in a clearcut victory for Muguruza and a second major title for the 23-year-old. Ultimately, it was a victory no serious critic could say she did not deserve.

The first set was, of course, critical. There was so little separating the two competitors that the outcome was always in doubt. Venus started with determination and purpose, serving an ace down the T at 109 MPH on the first point of the match, closing that game with a nifty backhand down the line winner. The No. 10 seed held at 30 for 1-0. Muguruza commenced the second game with a double fault into the net, but settled down nicely, finishing her service game with a winning backhand volley down the line and a terrific backhand finesse half volley winner. She held at 15 for 1-1. Both women had come fully prepared to play, and highly motivated to win.

Venus went six for six on first serves in the third game, holding at 30 as Muguruza missed a forehand down the line, going behind Williams for what could have been a winner. Muguruza answered impressively by holding at 15 for 2-2. She did not miss a first serve in that fourth game, and picked away effectively at the Williams forehand. Yet Venus swiftly retaliated, holding at love for 3-2, playing that game with utter assurance. Muguruza may have been briefly shaken, double faulting to make it 30-30 in the sixth game. On the following point, Williams connected impeccably with a forehand crosscourt passing shot winner, and there she was at 30-40, holding a break point for 4-2.

Muguruza was much at the mercy of Williams at that crucial moment, getting balls back while the American tried to dictate. But Williams went for a forehand down the line and netted it after being in control of the point. That was a costly mistake. Muguruza followed with an ace and then Williams erred again off the forehand. 3-3. Muguruza had managed to stay on serve. Now it was time for the American to struggle on her delivery. She served no fewer than four double faults in the seventh game but, after being taken to deuce four times and facing one break point, she held on by claiming the last two points with an ace and a penetrating backhand that drew an error from the Spaniard.

It was 4-3 for Williams, but unhesitatingly Muguruza arrived at 4-4, holding at 15 with a first serve setting up a backhand crosscourt winner off a short ball. Williams responded admirably, holding at love for 5-4, sweeping the last three of those points with a pair of forehand winners sandwiched between a 114 MPH ace down the T. Now Williams went to work assiduously to gain a service break and seal the set, and she came agonizingly close to achieving that goal. Muguruza apprehensively missed a forehand down the line into the net to trail 15-40, and this was right where Williams wanted to be. She was at double set point and poised to take command of the match and probably collect the title. Of the last ten women's Wimbledon women's finals from 2007-2016, only one had gone to three sets. The importance of winning the first set was irrefutable from the standpoint of both competitors.

On the first set point, Muguruza and Williams had a suspenseful 19 stroke exchange before Venus sent a crosscourt forehand into the net. That took Muguruza to 30-40, and on that set point her first serve coaxed a forehand return error from Williams. Buoyed by making it back to deuce, Muguruza stood toe to toe with Venus in a crosscourt forehand exchange, but then altered the pattern by going down the line with interest. The Spaniard had unleashed an outright winner. At game point, she prevailed as Venus missed a running forehand crosscourt long. Muguruza had drawn even at 5-5. Williams had been thwarted just when she seemed certain to take command. In the eleventh game, Muguruza persisted after Williams wiped away one break point. Her defensive prowess was fully exhibited on her second break point opportunity, and Williams eventually drove a forehand crosscourt long.

Now the 2015 Wimbledon finalist was serving for the set. After Williams made a forehand passing shot winner off a short half volley from Muguruza, the Spaniard took the next two points and then advanced to 40-15 in style. Venus drove a flat forehand down the line, made a delayed approach but had to retreat as Muguruza lobbed crosscourt off the backhand. Venus chased it to no avail. That shot landed safely in the corner for a dazzling winner. It was double set point for Muguruza. Williams saved the first one with a scorching forehand down the line that was unanswerable, but the Spaniard came through on the second as Williams netted a routine backhand down the line. Set to Muguruza, 7-5.

While it was clearly disconcerting for Williams to lose the opening set after twice being one point away from taking it, at that juncture the match seemed far from over. Williams got to 40-30 in the first game of the second set, only to net a forehand under little pressure. After another deuce, Williams was provoked into an errant backhand, and then she double faulted that game away. The Spaniard was soaring. Williams was collapsing. Muguruza held at 30 for 2-0 on her third game point as Williams was guilty of another backhand unforced error. Serving in the third game, Williams went to 30-30 but a spirited Muguruza realized it was time for the kill. She produced a superb backhand passing show down the line for a winner. At 30-40, Williams was well positioned for a forehand volley, but punched it wide. Muguruza led 3-0 with two breaks in the second set over a wilting Venus. The 2016 French Open victor surely believed now that she was destined to win, but she left nothing to chance.

Serving at 15-15 in the fourth game, good fortune came Muguruza's way. Her first serve down the T took a bad bounce and turned into an accidental ace, much to the dismay of Williams fans. At 40-30 in that game, another sparkling backhand passing shot winner from Muguruza enabled her to hold, this one a crosscourt beauty into an open space on the 17th stroke of an absorbing exchange. Once more, she had out-witted Williams, who had made a delayed approach off the forehand. Muguruza had travelled spectacularly to 4-0, but not without considerable help from the vulnerable and listless American in that game.

Venus was totally spent. Despite putting three of four first serves in play. Williams made three unforced errors off the backhand for 0-40 and then Muguruza sealed the break at love, opening up the court with a sharp angle before lacing a gorgeous backhand winner down the line. On to 5-0 went Muguruza with that break. She sailed to 40-0 in the last game before Venus saved a pair of match points. But on the third match point, the Spaniard sealed the victory as she won a challenge on a Williams backhand that was long on the baseline. From the dire predicament of 4-5, 15-40, Muguruza had not only collected nine games in a row but had also won 39 of 56 points. Venus made 25 unforced errors across two sets while Muguruza had only 11. Both players finished with a 71% first serve percentage but Muguruza won 77% of her first serve points while Venus took only 61%.

But statistics don't tell the whole story of this match. It was played indoors under the roof, and the conditions seemed slower than usual to me. Williams was not releasing her groundstrokes in as lethal a fashion as usual, and Muguruza also fended off some very big shots with top of the line defense. Meanwhile, Muguruza set the tempo whenever she could and passed brilliantly. She realized as the second set progressed that Venus was disintegrating steadily, moving poorly by her high standards, missing early in rallies, and looking quietly desperate at times as defeat became increasingly inevitable.

Williams had wanted to become the oldest woman ever to rule on the Centre Court in the Open Era, and had she closed out the opening set the American might well have realized that lofty goal. But she had to settle for second place, which is no mean feat. She was runner-up to her sister Serena at the Australian Open and now has reached a second major final in 2017, and her first at Wimbledon since losing to Serena in 2009. Not since 2003 had Venus been in two finals at the majors in the same year.

But she was beaten by a better player who had a deeper well of determination and a larger belief in herself. Garbiñe Muguruza fully deserved her second career major title and her first at Wimbledon. She had not won a tournament of any kind in all of 2017, but what a place to start making amends! And so the last two tournament victories for Muguruza have been Roland Garros in 2016 and Wimbledon of 2017. Go figure!

She has been a puzzling player to me these last couple of years. She had a stirring run to the Wimbledon final two years ago before Serena Williams struck her down 6-4, 6-4. The rest of that year she was relatively quiet. At Roland Garros in 2016, she turned the tables on Serena in the final, but performed dismally thereafter. And now she has prevailed again on a prominent stage—the most famous of them all.

My hope is that Muguruza will start demanding much more of herself. She belongs in the forefront of the game, challenging the best on the biggest occasions, winning her share of important tournaments, making her presence known frequently on significant stages. She should take some time now to celebrate the enormity of her victory here, but get back to work as soon as possible and turn herself into the champion that she can surely be on a more consistent basis. With anything less than than a full serving of pride and professionalism, Garbiñe Mugjuruza would be letting herself down substantially.

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