Her 2016 campaign had been largely unexceptional. In nine tournament appearances on the WTA Tour, only once had she made it to a semifinal, although that was in her most recent event at Rome, where she lost to Madison Keys. But that was her best showing of the year. Considering that fact, no one was fully prepared for Muguruza to perform so majestically on the red clay of Roland Garros. No one with the possible exception of her inner circle could have seen this coming. No one anticipated that this 22-year-old ball striking dynamo would celebrate the fortnight of her life and come away with her first Grand Slam singles tournament victory, but that is precisely what she did.
The dynamic Spaniard took on Williams again in her second major final, and this time, on slow clay in cool conditions, she was wiser, more composed, less apprehensive and remarkably bold from beginning to end. Muguruza toppled the mighty Williams 7-5, 6-4 with unshakable authority, a willingness to go for her shots unapologetically, and a striking determination to succeed. She upended the defending champion with utter resolve and tenacity, and would not back away from her mindset or game plan. It was a gripping encounter featuring extraordinarily big hitting on both sides of the net, major shifts in momentum, and fluctuations of form from each of the players. In the end, however, in plain and simple terms, Muguruza was irrefutably the better player, and, to be sure, a worthy victor.
Muguruza and Williams settled into the final quickly and affirmatively. Williams commenced with a love hold before Muguruza drew level at 1-1. holding at 30. Serena seemed entirely confident on her delivery, holding at 15 for 2-1 after serving a vicious, kicking second serve ace out wide for 30-0. And then the American got a good look at taking control of the set. With Muguruza serving at 1-2, the two combatants fought honorably through four deuces. Williams had two break points, but here Muguruza first displayed how tough she would be under pressure, saving the first break point with a penetrating forehand crosscourt that elicited an error from the stretched out American. On the second opportunity for the top seed, Muguruza aced her adversary down the T, employing a tactic that would put her in good stead all match long. On her third game point, Muguruza unleashed another thundering forehand that was too much for Williams to handle. It was 2-2, and clearly Muguruza now had her bearings.
Serving in the fifth game, Williams seemed disconcerted by not having broken. She fell behind 0-40, surged back to 30-40, but double faulted long to trail 3-2. Muguruza’s returns were so searing that Williams realized ordinary second serves were going to be insufficient on this occasion. The way I saw it, that double fault at break point down was caused by an imposing opponent who was taking her returns early and going for them unrelentingly.
And yet, Muguruza encountered some problems of her own in the following game. She served consecutive double faults to fall into a 0-30 predicament. She, too, was feeling the heat of her opponent’s returns. I marveled at times as the Spaniard attained such excellent depth on her second deliveries, but there was some risk involved with that commitment. Nevertheless, Muguruza refused to be discouraged by what she had done. She promptly swept four points in a row to establish a 4-2 lead, closing that game with a superbly produced forehand down the line winner.
Now Serena fully understood what a supreme battle she had on her hands. She raised the stakes considerably by collecting three games in a row. In holding for 3-4, Williams served an ace down the T for 40-15 and then released a second serve to the backhand that Muguruza could not control. With Muguruza serving in the eighth game at 30-30, Williams seized control of the rally, sustained her high intensity, and produced a scintillating inside out forehand winner. Now, at break point, she mixed up her shots skillfully and coaxed an error from the Spaniard.
Back to 4-4 was the American, and she was absolutely determined to maintain her edge. In the ninth game, Williams aced her way to 30-0, lost the next point and then double faulted flagrantly long. But she was unwavering. At 30-30, Williams laced a forehand down the line winner off a reasonably deep forehand from her adversary. And then she opened up the court with her first serve for a neatly executed rolled forehand crosscourt that was unanswerable by Muguruza.
The Spaniard had her work clearly cut out for her now. She was serving to stay in the first set at 4-5, with every reason to be clouded by doubts. And yet, her mind remained full of clarity, and her conviction was not gone. She held convincingly at 15 for 5-5. The key point in that game was a dazzling forehand winner down the line behind Serena. Muguruza had done herself proud when the chips were on the line, affirming for the world No. 1 that she was not shying away from a pursuit of the big prize; Serena would be required to beat her because Muguruza was essentially unwilling to defeat herself.
Williams sensed danger ahead. She opened the eleventh game with a double fault, sending her second serve astoundingly long again. A poorly executed drop shot from Williams backfired on the second point. The world No. 1 managed to rally for 30-30, but she was caught totally off guard by a beautifully disguised backhand down the line from Muguruza. Williams could only meekly slice a forehand into the net. Down break point, she missed her first serve, and the ferocious Muguruza belted her return off the second. Serena was on her heels. Muguruza followed with a potent crosscourt forehand, rushing Williams into an error. It was 6-5 for the No. 4 seed.
Muguruza double faulted to drift into a 15-40 corner in the critical twelfth game, but once more acquitted herself admirably under duress. A well placed first serve drew an errant forehand return from Williams. Then Muguruza served an ace down the T for deuce. But Williams characteristically battled on gamely. She saved one set point with a magnificent forehand swing volley winner down the line, a brave shot under the circumstances. Then Serena saved a second set point with a punishing forehand crosscourt that caused a miss-hit from Muguruza. Yet Muguruza garnered a third set point, and seized it in style, taking a short return from Williams and driving a two-hander down the line for an outright winner. In 56 absorbing minutes, the set belonged to Muguruza, 7-5.
Yet there was much hard work left to be done. A seemingly dismayed Williams was broken at 15 in the opening game of the second set with a cluster of unprovoked errors and one terrific second serve return winner from Muguruza. But the Spaniard was broken right back, serving three double faults, including a pair at the conclusion of that game. It was 1-1.Yet Williams could not exploit that glaring lapse from the Spaniard. Serena commenced the third game with an ace but did not win another point. A resolute Muguruza took a 2-1 lead.
The Spaniard stretched that lead to 3-1, holding at 30 with a scorching forehand crosscourt winner. Williams seemed almost desperate at this juncture. She managed to hold on at 30 for 2-3, but three times felt the urge to scream, “Come On!”. She appeared to be more angry at herself than optimistic about the outcome. Muguruza started the sixth game with a double fault, but won the next four points with authority to reach 4-2. The 34-year-old icon was in no mood to concede, however, holding at 15 in the seventh game with her biggest serve of the afternoon— a 196 kilometer ace down the T.
If that thunderbolt was meant to intimidate an opponent appearing in only her second major final, it plainly did not work. Muguruza served her ninth and final double fault for 0-15, but held at 15 with an ace out wide, her second of the game. On to 5-3 went Muguruza, hoping she could wrap it up right then and there, and not have to close out the match on her own delivery. Williams had lost her rhythm, missing five first serves in a row across the ninth game. She found herself double match point down at 15-40, but Williams would not be Williams without making some dramatically explosive moves when on the brink of defeat.
She accelerated the pace on a two-hander crosscourt and drew an error for 30-40, and then reached deuce with an unstoppable first serve down the T. Muguruza earned herself a third match point, but Serena used an immaculately placed wide serve to open up an avenue for a forehand crosscourt winner. Unswayed, Muguruza made it to match point No. 4, but this time her adventuresome backhand crosscourt return landed wide. On her third game point, Williams somehow held on for 4-5. Now it would be necessary after all for Muguruza to serve out the match, and she had the added burden of thinking about it for what must have seemed like an eternity at the changeover.
And yet, the Spaniard walked calmly to the other side of the court, readied herself to serve, and performed as if she had been in this position countless times in her life. Williams helped Muguruza out on the first point with a wild miss down the line off the backhand, and then Muguruza went on the attack for 30-0, approaching the net off her forehand, eliciting an errant lob from Williams. At 30-0, Williams moved forward to deal with a stab volley from Muguruza, but inexplicably hit her backhand passing shot harder than necessary. It went long, and so it was triple match point for the No. 4 seed. Williams approached on the Spanish player’s backhand, and retreated as Muguruza released a topspin lob. The American erroneously thought the shot was going long, but it fell inside the baseline for a winner.
Muguruza had thus knocked out not only the defending champion, but a woman who was striving to capture the title for the fourth time. More importantly, Williams was attempting to secure her 22nd major title, which would have placed her in a tie for second place on the all time women’s list, two behind leader Margaret Court, but right alongside Steffi Graf. But that 22nd crown remains an elusive prize for the historically driven Williams. Against Muguruza, Williams’s put in only 49% of her first serves while Muguruza was at 58%. On top of that, Serena won 70% of her first serve points but Muguruza was at 73% in that category. On second serve points won, Williams was down at 42%, while Muguruza, despite her outbreaks of double faults, was at 45%.
Consider what has happened to Serena since she beat Muguruza in the Wimbledon final last July. She came to New York in search of the first Grand Slam since Graf in 1988, and was ever so close to realizing that lofty goal. In the semifinals, she was serving at 2-0, 40-30 in the third set against the Italian Roberta Vinci, but lose that contest. She would have faced Flavia Pennetta in the final, a player she almost surely would have toppled.
Williams took the rest of the year off, and then returned in Australia, only to lose the final there in three sets to an inspired Angelique Kerber. And now she has lost again in a major final. She has won 21 of 27 career major finals, and yet now has fallen short in her last two. For one of the greatest ever big match players in the women’s game, that has to be jarring to say the least. She was asked about an adductor injury after the match and would not use that as an excuse, which was commendable. Yet I have my doubts now that she will catch Court on that historical ladder. I am convinced she will tie and probably surpass Graf, but her body may be breaking down and her mind may be less of a weapon that it was even a year ago.
As for Muguruza, the hope here is that she will make the most of the new world she has found as a major champion. She has demonstrated that she can play on any surface, and her outstanding run at Roland Garros should carry the Spaniard on to more triumphs at the Grand Slam championships. Muguruza is a player who can blast people off the court. She is a champion with the right mentality, and a woman who will do everything in her power to succeed, to not rest on her laurels. As she said on the court during the presentation ceremony, ” You work all your life to get here.”
The work is far from over.