Garbine Muguruza: Willing her way past a Williams

Garbine Muguruza made history as the first player to beat both Serena and Venus Williams, her girlhood role models, in Grand Slam finals. With just four overall titles, two of which are majors, the ambitious Spaniard remains mystifyingly inconsistent. Will her boom-and-bust cycles return, or will she reign in the post-Serena era? And, whatever happens, don’t count the venerable Venus Williams out, too.

Garbine Muguruza in her moment of pomp at Wimbledon 2017.   -  GETTY IMAGES

“Each player must accept the cards life deals him or her; but once they are in hand, he or she alone must decide how to play the cards in order to win the game.” — Voltaire

“Venus Ebony Starr Williams has overcome so much. The divorce of her parents in 2002, the murder of her half-sister in 2003, the diagnosis of Sjögren’s syndrome in 2011, and last month her involvement in a fatal traffic accident she called “devastating” in a tearful Wimbledon press conference. While exonerated by the police, she faces a civil lawsuit. It all exacted a heavy toll. Especially the auto-immune disease which often left her with so little energy that her ranking plunged to No. 137. “I thought her career was over in 2011,” said former champion Chris Evert. “I never thought she’d have this resurgence.”

The resurgence started a year ago when Venus reached the Wimbledon semifinals. It gathered momentum with a run to the Australian Open final in January. And this fortnight, without pregnant Serena in the draw, many envisioned its culmination with a sixth Wimbledon title.

READ: Wimbledon: Muguruza takes down Venus for maiden Wimbledon

Not even the age of 37 — ancient for a pro tennis player — seemed to deter this natural optimist who loves both tennis and competition. After defeating three “kids” all born in 1997, including French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko, Venus declared, “I love the challenge. I love the pressure. I feel quite capable, to be honest, and powerful. So whatever age that is, as long as I feel like that, I know I can contend for titles every time.”

Not many expected Venus Williams to come this far, to the final, at the age of 37, but then she displayed a refurbished game over the fortnight.   -  AFP

 

Venus sure did at Wimbledon — until she was overcome by the physical and emotional toll and a much-younger opponent who also had something to prove. Short-lived peaks and long valleys have marked the brilliant, but erratic, career of Garbine Muguruza. As Evert observed, “She teases us. Is she the next champion?”

The 23-year- old Spaniard burst on the scene by demolishing world No. 1 Serena 6-2, 6-2 at the 2014 French Open. The following year Muguruza displayed her grass-court potential by reaching the Wimbledon final. And in 2016, she was tabbed as “the next young star” when she won her first Grand Slam title at Roland Garros, defeating Serena again. But her road towards the top was filled with big potholes, frequent early-round losses that resulted in a moody, occasionally even ornery, disposition.

READ: Federer, Muguruza dazzle at Wimbledon gala

After winning her first Wimbledon crown, Muguruza acknowledged, “It’s hard to deal with success because it brings a lot of expectations and frustrations.”

Despite their 14-year age difference, Venus, the tour’s elder stateswoman, and Muguruza, one of its best bets to succeed Serena at No. 1, have much in common. Both are six-footers and both are lithe power hitters who thrive on dictating points with the serves, serve returns, and booming groundstrokes. Both relish playing on Centre Court. Both also had surprisingly low rankings, No. 11 for Venus and No. 15 for Muguruza coming into Wimbledon. Even more surprising, neither had won a tournament in the past 13 months.

Venus faced a slightly tougher draw to make the final, knocking off 27th seed Ana Konjuh, 13th seed Ostapenko, and sixth seed Johanna Konta, who was hoping to become the first British ladies’ queen in 40 years. But Muguruza scored the most impressive victory when she smacked 55 winners to overcome No. 1 seed Angelique Kerber 4-6, 6-4, 6-4.

 

Venus re-invented her game by improving two key strokes to stay ahead of the competition.

“Venus’ forehand used to break down quite often, but now it’s a magnificent stroke,” distinguished coach Nick Bollettieri told The Independent (UK). “She has improved it by strengthening her lower foundation and using her legs a lot more. When you stand upright to hit a forehand you’re only able to generate power from the waist upwards and you often shank the ball. Now Venus gets down lower to hit her shots, which is giving her extra power.” This technical change also increased the topspin which decreased her errors.

Improved technique and smart variation also made her potent serve even better. “Her shoulder turn is much better than it used to be,” pointed out Bollettieri. “She served magnificently against Konta, making great use of the body serve. She could see Konta standing close to the baseline so she kept hitting body serves at her. Konta just didn’t know how to handle that.” As a result, Venus’ once-weak second serve turned into a strength at Wimbledon; an amazing 30% of her second serves weren’t returned going into the final.

For the emotional Muguruza, the improvement was mostly psychological. “For a year, Muguruza has been uptight, stressed out on the court,” explained ESPN analyst Mary Joe Fernandez. “Now she’s playing a little calmer on the court. She’s maturing. She’s learning. She’s happy the (2017) French Open is over — with all those points she had to defend (after winning it in 2016). It’s over. She’s starting anew. She’s getting her confidence back. One of her idols is Nadal, and she’s taken a page out of his book for intensity.”

Although both competitors started the final nervously, they managed to hold serve for the first 10 games. Venus staved off a break point in the seventh game with a 94-mph second serve that Muguruza couldn’t return.

Venus’ fairy tale quest for an eighth Grand Slam title looked quite possible when she led 5-4, 15-40 on Muguruza’s serve. But the Spaniard’s forehand, her less formidable groundstroke, saved two set points, the second in a ferocious 19-shot rally. Only a clairvoyant could have foreseen that those set points would prove her last chances to win the Wimbledon final.

At this juncture, Muguruza had held serve 24 straight times and, equally ominous for Venus, Muguruza, a superb frontrunner, owned a 40-2 record in major events after capturing the first set. In addition, Venus was just 1-7 in major finals after losing the first set. Venus committed a whopping six forehand errors, her old vulnerability, and a double fault to lose her serve and fall behind 6-5. She would not win another game. After Muguruza prevailed in a heavy-hitting rally on set point, she clenched her fist in satisfaction.

“I was expecting the best of Venus because I saw her and she was playing very good,” Muguruza said afterwards. “I knew she was going to make me suffer and fight for it. When I had those set points against me, I am like, ‘Hey, it’s normal. I am playing Venus here.’ So I just kept fighting. I knew that if I was playing like I was playing during the two weeks, I was going to eventually have an opportunity. So I was calm. If I lose the first set, I still have two more. Let’s not make drama.”

With her bold power game, the Venezuela-born Muguruza broke the Spanish mould for heady and steady stylists — highlighted by four-time major winner Arantxa Sanchez Vicario and Conchita Martinez, her interim coach, who upset 37-year- old Martina Navratilova in the 1994 Wimbledon final.

Muguruza added topspin to steady her forehand and thwarted Venus with swerving body serves (44% in the ad court and 36% in the deuce court), nuances that showed she’s not just a one-trick pony. Ironically, it was the far more experienced Venus who went for winners too soon in rallies, self-destructing with 25 unforced errors compared to just 11 for Muguruza. In the lopsided 6-0 second set, the fast-fading Venus didn’t win any of her five second-serve points and won only 12 points overall.

“The way Muguruza turned the match and year around is unbelievable,” marvelled Evert. “She struck the ball with belief and conviction. It’s incredible that two years ago she admitted she didn’t even like to play on grass.”

Muguruza made history as the first player to beat both Serena and Venus, her girlhood role models, in Grand Slam finals. With just four overall titles, two of which are majors, the ambitious Spaniard remains mystifyingly inconsistent. Will her boom-and-bust cycles return, or will she reign in the post-Serena era? And how much will the return of five-time major winner Maria Sharapova this summer and Serena next year and the presumed return to peak form of two-time Grand Slam champions Petra Kvitova and Victoria Azarenka change the pecking order?

Whatever happens, don’t count venerable Venus out. After all, at the start of 2017, no one predicted the age-defying and adversity-beating American would reach two major finals this season, the only woman to achieve that.

In her Centre Court interview after the disappointing loss, the smiling, upbeat Venus humbly referenced her more accomplished sister: “I tried my best to do what you do.” She also confidently said, “But I think there’ll be other opportunities, I do.”

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