That was a championship she garnered essentially on willpower, poise under pressure, and a champion’s grasp of how to win matches when seldom near the peak of her powers. Here on the grass in Great Britain, the story was strikingly different. To be sure, she was given some rigorous examinations. Great Britain’s Heather Watson fearlessly battled Williams down to the wire and served for the match at 5-4 in the final set before bowing 6-2, 4-6, 7-5 in the third round. The resurgent Victoria Azarenka took a set off Serena for the third time in a row, only to lose that quarterfinal appointment.
But Williams proceeded to finish off her title run without losing any more sets, taking apart Maria Sharapova for the 17th time in a row 6-2, 6-4. That semifinal victory set the stage for an intriguing final round showdown with Spain’s Garbine Muguruza, the No. 20 seed. Williams was awfully apprehensive at the outset of the final, and nerves plagued her again before she could close out a stirring if uneven account.
In the end, despite her struggle to maintain her highest standards and play an uninhibited brand of tennis, Williams cut down the big hitting Muguruza 6-4, 6-4 to claim a sixth Wimbledon singles title and a 21st major altogether. Only Margaret Smith Court with 24 majors and Steffi Graf at 22 have sealed more Grand Slam titles. The view here is that Williams will surely move past Graf, and is almost certain to tie Court. My guess is that she will find a way to surpass the Australian and get to 25 because her growing awareness of tennis history and her place in it is so advanced. Meanwhile, Williams has managed to pull off the second “Serena Slam” of her career. She won four majors in a row from the French Open of 2002 through the Australian Open of 2003, and now has sealed four Grand Slam championships consecutively since losing in the third round of Wimbledon a year ago.
When there are so many historical targets to hit simultaneously, it can be tough to play competitive tennis on your own terms.
Williams knew full well what was at stake over the past two weeks, understood that these career defining opportunities are limited and must be seized, and realized that she had to make the most of it. Her final round performance against Muguruza did not feature Williams at her best. In fact, she played more inspired tennis against both Azarenka and Sharapova, two old rivals she has confronted so many times over the years.
Muguruza is a new rival who is swiftly rising up the international ladder. She will be no stranger to success in the years ahead. The 21-year-old Spaniard was ranked No. 64 in the world at the end of 2013 but moved up to No. 21 upon the conclusion of 2014. She will now enter the top ten at No. 9 after her run to the final of the world’s premier tournament. Muguruza has all of the tools needed in her trade to succeed on a long term basis: immense power and good control off both sides from the baseline, a good first serve, a capacity to hit winners from anywhere on the court, and impressive mobility for a woman who is 6 feet tall.
The Spaniard had only played Williams three times previously, but had fared well. She lost to the world No. 1 in their first meeting at the Australian Open of 2013, crushed the American 6-2, 6-2 in the second round of the 2014 French Open, and then took a set off Serena this year in the round of 16 at Melbourne before losing that Australian Open clash 2-6, 6-3, 6-2. Muguruza was plainly not intimidated by her iconic adversary, and she started this final with more self-assurance than her much heralded opponent.
Remarkably, despite winning the toss and having the benefit of serving first, Williams was the player battling serious Centre Court nerves. The top seed double faulted on the first point of this title round meeting, but surged to 40-15 before erring off the backhand side. From 40-30, Williams double faulted consecutively to trail break point. Williams saved three break points but could not escape on the fourth. Muguruza’s solid forehand return coaxed Williams into a backhand error. Williams connected with only 5 of 14 first serves in that opening game, serving three double faults. Muguruza secured the immediate break.
The Spaniard held for 2-0 as Williams missed a forehand return on the 40-30 point. Muguruza soon moved into a 0-30 lead in the third game on the Williams serve, well positioned to perhaps achieve an insurance break and take control of the set. Serena, however, would not sign on for that scenario. She recognized the need to hold on here, and did so purposefully. A strong second serve induced a backhand return error for 15-30. Williams released a 119 MPH service winner to the backhand for 30-30, a 120 MPH unanswerable serve for 40-30, and another fine kick second serve that Muguruza could not get back into play. With four crucial swings of the racket, Williams had held for 1-2 and averted a precarious situation.
Yet Muguruza stood her ground capably in the fourth game. Taken to deuce, she walloped a crosscourt backhand to provoke an error from the 33-year-old American. Muguruza held on for 3-1. Williams found a better rhythm on serve to hold for 2-3 at 30, opening that game with an ace out wide, closing it with a 122 MPH service winner to the backhand that raised chalk. Muguruza could not handle the arduous return. But the Spaniard was competing with vigor, believing in her chances, knowing precisely what was at stake. Down 15-40 in the sixth game, she unleashed a sizzling inside out forehand winner. Muguruza rallied to deuce with another scorching forehand that was unmanageable for Williams. She followed with two unreturnable first serves to hold on admirably for 4-2.
The Spaniard could hardly have made a better start, and Williams remained largely out of sorts. But the American has always keenly sensed when to make her move, how to play the biggest points, and the way to turn deficits into leads. She started that process in the seventh game, serving an ace for 15-0, holding at love with regal authority. Williams was determined to salvage this set. In the eighth game, Williams stepped up the pace of her shots considerably, bearing down hard, applying herself assiduously. Williams reached 15-40 before Muguruza aced her out wide.
Now Williams was fortunate. Her return at 30-40 was a complete miss-hit, but the shot somehow stayed in the court. Williams won that point on an errant forehand from Muguruza. It was 4-4. Williams at last had her bearings. Serving in the ninth game, she double faulted to make it 15-15 but moved briskly to 40-15. On her second game point at 40-30, Williams produced a 116 MPH first serve that set up an easy winner. She had climbed from 2-4 to 5-4, but there was more work to be done.
In the tenth game, Muguruza served to stay in the set. At 30-30, she aced Williams at 109 MPH down the T, reaching game point for 5-5. But Williams was resolute. She wanted to end the set now. A flat backhand return rushed Muguruza into an error and the score was locked at deuce. Muguruza was feeling the extreme heat of the Williams arsenal, and it made her edgy and uncomfortable. She double faulted into the net. It was set point for Williams. The world No. 1 was at her very best in taking that critical point, pounding away off the ground until she had an opening for an inside forehand winner. The shot was letter perfect. She timed it sweetly. The set belonged to Williams, 6-4.
Coming behind so boldly from 2-4 down to win the last four games of the first set gave Williams the encouragement she needed to widen her advantage and make her presence known more strikingly. She served two deuce court aces on her way to 1-0 in the second set, holding at 15. Muguruza answered with a love hold of her own to make it 1-1. Williams became somewhat jittery again. She opened the third game with an ace but followed with a pair of double faults. The score went to deuce but then Williams sent out another ace at 123 MPH and followed with a service winner. Williams had a 2-1 lead, and now her nerves were fading and her game was flowing again.
Williams broke Muguruza at 15 for 3-1, held at love with two more aces in the fifth game, and broke Muguruza at love to establish a commanding 5-1 lead. The American had won 14 of 15 points to put herself on the edge of the title. She had simply found her range off the ground and Muguruza was being belted into submission. But, curiously, Williams became tense once more. Serving for the match at 5-1, she double faulted to ball behind 0-30 and was broken at love. She did not put a first serve in play during that game. Buoyed by that development, Muguruza bolted to 40-15 at 2-5 before Williams made it back to deuce, two points away from sealing the crown.
Muguruza did herself proud at that moment with a service winner. At game point for the third time, Muguruza released a crackling crosscourt forehand that provoked an error from Williams. The gap had been cut to 5-3. With a second chance to serve out the match, Williams faltered again. She double faulted into the net for 0-15 and drifted to 0-40. But Williams collected the next four points with a flourish, serving an ace at 112 MPH down the T, hitting a 123 MPH service winner, releasing another ace down the T at 109 MPH and then thundering an ace down the T at 121 MPH.
That series of four clutch points sent Williams from triple break point down to her first match point. But Muguruza courageously saved it with a forehand winner behind Serena. Eventually, she broke back for 4-5 with a scintillating forehand down the line winner. The greatest server in the history of women’s tennis had served for the match twice, but had failed to find her way across the finish line. What were the chances of that occurring? Now Muguruza served in the tenth game to get back on level terms. There was an unmistakable buzz all through Centre Court.
But Muguruza double faulted on the opening point of the final game, and Williams followed with a lucky let-cord off the backhand that Muguruza could not chase down. Williams gained the timely break at love to close out a 6-4, 6-4 triumph and raise her unassailable record in major finals to 21-4. It had been a somewhat disheveled performance from the best woman player in the world. She served eight double faults, connected with only 54% of her first serves and won just 35% of her second serve points. But Williams won nine of ten games from 2-4 down in the opening set to 5-1 in the second, giving herself a sufficient cushion. In the end, she performed well enough to win. That was all that really mattered. Meanwhile, Muguruza acquitted herself well as she contested her first major final on the most celebrated stage of them all.
And so Williams heads to the U.S. Open needing only that title to complete an authentic Grand Slam sweep of all four majors in one year. Only five players have won the Grand Slam in the history of the game: Don Budge in 1938, Maureen Connolly in 1953, Rod Laver in 1962 and 1969, Margaret Court in 1979 and Steffi Graf in 1988. Graf went to New York that year with the media fixated on her historical quest, but this year there will be even more fanfare surrounding Serena and her bid for the tallest achievement in the sport.
Williams has now established herself as the oldest woman in the Open Era to win a major singles title at 33 years and 289 days. She breaks the record held by Martina Navratilova since the 1990 Wimbledon. In New York, Williams should be eager, well prepared, deeply driven and fully capable of taking the last leg of the Grand Slam. I believe she will realize that goal because she is the best big match woman player of her era, the most highly motivated competitor, and a woman consumed by raising her stature step by step until she is universally regarded as the greatest player of all time.