French Open: Muguruza and Djokovic break through

From her gutsy first decision, electing to receive against the greatest server in tennis history, to her last creative shot, a perfect topspin lob winner on championship point, Gabine Muguruza seized the moment. And in the men’s final, though Andy Murray matched Novak Djokovic in will, he could not come close in offensive skill.

An ecstatic Garbine Muguruza with the trophy after defeating Serena Williams in the women's singles final.   -  Getty Images

Novak Djokovic celebrates his victory over Andy Murray in the men's singles final with the ball girls.   -  REUTERS

Champions are made from something they have deep inside them: a desire, a dream, a vision. They have to have last-minute stamina, they have to be a little faster, they have to have the skill and the will. But the will must be stronger than the skill.

— Muhammad Ali, before his 1974 fight against George Foreman

Making history. All elite athletes, whether they admit it or not, think about making history. They yearn to leave their mark, not just on the field or the court, but in the record books and in the memories of millions of fans.

Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray burned with desire to capture their first French Open title. Serena Williams hungered to equal Steffi Graf’s Open record 22 major titles, while the self-described “ambitious” Garbine Muguruza longed for her first Grand Slam crown. Williams denied her that in the Wimbledon final nearly a year ago.

As Muguruza walked onto Court Philippe Chatrier for this final, she gave herself a pep talk: “Come on Garbiñe, you can do this. You’ve worked for this all your life. Now’s your moment to make history.”

From Muguruza’s gutsy first decision, electing to receive against the greatest server in tennis history, to her last creative shot, a perfect topspin lob winner on championship point, the statuesque Spaniard seized the moment.

Nothing would deter her. Nothing ever has. On the contrary, she relishes challenges, especially on the biggest stages. When ankle surgery sidelined her for the second half of 2013, Muguruza put a chair on the practice court and hit balls from a seated position. Before the 2015 Wimbledon final, Muguruza boldly declared, “If you want to win a Grand Slam, when you dream, you say, ‘I want Serena in the final.’ ”

 

In the Roland Garros final, defending champion and No. 1 Williams blasted four quick points to grab the opening game. Instead of being intimidated like so many of Williams’s opponents, Muguruza overpowered Williams in the second game.

The lean, 6’-tall Muguruza had never won a clay-court event before, but that didn’t deter her either. She plays go-for-broke tennis on every surface. As NBC analyst John McEnroe noted, “Muguruza is the first player who can go toe to toe with Serena and make her miss.” In fact, Mugu’s groundstrokes averaged two miles per hour faster than Williams’s (73 vs. 71).

For the most part, Muguruza controlled her emotions as well as her powerful shots. Down break point twice in the fourth game, she calmly responded with a forehand winner and a volley winner. Williams cracked under the pressure first, double-faulting to lose her serve and go down 3-2.

Serving for the first set at 6-5, Muguruza again displayed tenacity and poise. She escaped two more break points and then whacked a backhand winner to take the set.

The proud Williams staved off four championship points to eventually hold serve for 4-5 in the second set. “I’ve never seen a player come from match points down more often than Serena,” said McEnroe.

But the ageing (34) and fading Williams couldn’t do it again. The rising star Muguruza ruthlessly won four straight points, clinching the taut duel with a brilliant lob. It left Williams standing flat-footed in desperation. “Jeu, set et match Mademoiselle Muguruza,” announced the umpire. The 7-5, 6-4 loss was only Williams’s sixth in 27 Grand Slam finals. (Graf was 22-9 and all-time leader Margaret Court 24-5.)

Williams refused to use the strained adductor muscle in her upper leg as an excuse for her third straight upset defeat in a major. It followed a shocking loss to 43rd-ranked Roberta Vinci at the US Open and a surprise defeat to No. 7 Angelique Kerber at the Australian Open. Afterward, Williams didn’t ungraciously claim to have played poorly, without crediting her opponent, as she did so often earlier in her career.

“I didn’t play the game I needed to win,” Williams conceded. “Garbine played unbelievable.” Williams also tellingly added, “She played to win.”

That confidence and conviction will take the offensive-minded, 22-year-old Muguruza, now ranked No. 2, far in realizing her dreams.

“I am a believer,” says NBC analyst Mary Carillo. “Muguruza is big and strong and her ambitions are as well. She is a proud Spaniard seeking to add to the great tennis traditions of that country, and she works hard to improve her already well formed and aggressive game. Her stumbling blocks have been largely physical—plantar fasciitis and heel problems—but her strokes are clean and she has a nice nose for the net.

“More than anyone I believe she is our next true champion,” predicts Carillo. “She showed great poise for two weeks in France. Her composure was better than any other, man or woman. She shook off nine double faults in that final and just kept bringing the heat. There is no reason to think that she cannot win major titles on all surfaces.”

Djokovic delivers

For Djokovic, a heavy 4-5 favorite entering the French Open, lifting the Coupe des Mousquetaires would put him in elite, historical company in several ways. Foremost, he would join the Career Grand Slam Club. Only Fred Perry, Don Budge, Rod Laver, Roy Emerson, Andre Agassi, Roger Federer, and Rafael Nadal had won all four Grand Slam tournaments—the Australian, French, and US Opens and Wimbledon.

Like Federer, Djokovic had experienced his least successful major at Roland Garros. The Swiss maestro finally captured it on his 11th attempt, in 2009, after losing three straight finals to clay court king Nadal. Last year, on Djokovic’s 11th try, after losing two finals to Nadal, he was ambushed by heavy-hitting Stan Wawrinka in a four-set final. The frustrated Djokovic was close to tears during the trophy presentation. The setback prevented him from achieving the first men’s Grand Slam—winning every major in a calendar year—since Laver pulled off the rare feat in 1969.

The French Open title would also propel the accelerating Serb halfway to that history-making achievement. Since Djokovic had seized three Wimbledons, including the last two over Federer, and two US Opens, the quest seemed achievable.

 

Finally, it would boost his career major total to 12. That would tie Djokovic with Emerson and put him two behind Nadal and Pete Sampras, and five behind Federer, who likely won’t win any more majors.

Before the final between the boyhood rivals with similar playing styles, McEnroe said, “ Djokovic is the better all-around player. If he plays up to his ability and keeps his nerves intact, Djokovic is going to win this.” As if those advantages weren’t enough, the crowd was decidedly behind him.

Despite Murray’s woeful 2-7 record in major finals and 1-4 record against Djokovic on clay, the 29-year-old Brit was playing the best clay-court tennis of his life. Just three weeks earlier, he stunned Djokovic 6-3, 6-3 in the Rome final.

After Murray out-hit and outwitted defending champ Wawrinka 6-4, 6-2, 4-6, 6-2 in the French semis, Wawrinka conceded, “When you play someone at such a level, what can you do?” Murray had another indispensable asset—confidence. “This is the first year he believes he can win this,” noted McEnroe.

Tennis is often likened to boxing, another mano a mano sport. Murray, who loves the “sweet science,” must have channeled Muhammad Ali, who passed away two days earlier, for inspiration. He played the final with passion, rather than the agitation and resignation that hampered him in some past big matches. Though he matched Djokovic in will, he could not come close in offensive skill.

Djokovic looked far more relaxed than Murray in the opening game. With boisterous spectators chanting “No-le!, No-le!, No-le!,” the slender Serb toyed with Murray, hitting drop-shots twice, to break him at love. The new and more resilient Murray hammered his forehand, returned serve aggressively, and played masterful defence to break back twice. Murray capitalised on the fast start to take the first set 6-3.

But the rest of the 3-6, 6-1, 6-2, 6-4 final played out much like the lopsided Australian Open final in January. Early in the second set Murray started feeling the pressure of Djokovic’s incomparable serve returns and relentless groundstrokes. As McEnroe observed, “It was inevitable Djokovic would get his act together.”

Djokovic notched two service breaks in each of the last three sets, and a chorus of “No-le!” chants hit a crescendo at 5-2 in the final set. “Except for playing [Davis Cup] for Serbia, he’s never felt this kind of affection from fans,” noted Carillo. Murray rebounded with a service break to close to 5-4. Then Djokovic, drawing on his experience—six straight major finals and 20 overall—held his nerve and serve to finish off Murray.

On the last three games and championship point, Djokovic recalled, “In the last point I don’t even remember what happened. It’s like my spirit had left my body. Kind of out-of-body experience. . . between 5-2 and closing out the match a lot has happened in my mind, in my soul. In order for me to win this trophy, I had to go through that.”

Emulating the post-final ritual of popular three-time French champion Gustavo “Guga” Kuerten, Djokovic drew a heart on the red clay with his racket and lay on his back inside it. Then the extroverted champ, in unison with the thrilled ball girls, raised their arms to the four sides of the stadium.

In his post-final speech, Murray paid tribute to the victor: “What he’s achieved in the last 12 months is phenomenal. Winning all four of the Grand Slams in one year is an amazing achievement.”

Could Djokovic equal the “Golden Slam”—the four major titles plus an Olympic gold medal this year—accomplished only once, by Graf in 1988?

“I don’t want to sound arrogant, but I really think everything is achievable in life,” Djokovic said.

If he pulled off that tour de force, he could even call himself “The Greatest,” as Ali did.