June 3, 2016
Could this be the changing of the guard? Or will Serena Williams make history while she still can?
Saturday’s final at Roland Garros between the rising star, Garbine Muguruza, and the already-great Williams promises to be a cracker.
The purest tennis has been played by Muguruza at Roland Garros this year. It has now earned her number three spot in the world. And you sense she won’t stop there.
After surviving an early scare, Garbine has taken opponents by storm – and Samantha Stosur was no different.
Muguruza had four games on the board even before the 32-year-old Australian registered one in their semi-final.
The 22-year-old Spaniard went 5-2 ahead with a stunning, backhand drive-volley and closed out the set 6-2 in just 34 minutes.
She had won 82% of points behind her first serve, compared to just 55 % from Stosur. The difference in all-round ability was very evident, despite Samantha’s excellent tournament.
Muguruza has it all. Only her tendency to tense up when she sees the finishing line is a weakness. Should she arrive at that point against Serena – and there is every reason to suspect she might – the younger woman will have to keep her emotions in check, if she wants to win her first Grand Slam.
Stosur was able to battle back from 2-5 to 4-5 due to this mental indiscipline from Garbine. Only some huge serving from Muguruza enabled her to close out the match 6-4, just when a defiant Stosur seemed ready to level the second set.
If Serena senses any self-doubt in Muguruza at any stage of the final, she will drive home her power with a ruthlessness that Garbine might find tough to handle.
But Williams has looked vulnerable herself in this tournament, more so than Muguruza. Will she suddenly find more strength, just when she needs it?
Against Kiki Bertens, Serena was broken in the very first game. She was still trailing at 3-5. And at 4-5, luck was with Serena when her shot dribbled over the net for 30-30, when she could have been facing set points instead.
In the first set tie-break, Williams let slip a 5-2 lead and then squandered a set point. At 7-6, Bertens could have wrapped up the first set herself. Instead Serena closed out the breaker 9-7 and breathed a sigh of relief.
The recent weaknesses in the Williams game, her backhand and her volleying, looked open to further exploitation as her Dutch opponent took a 2-0 lead. Bertens also had break points to go 4-2, after Williams had fought back to parity.
Eventually, on her fourth match point, Serena closed out. And she was quick to put a positive spin on her performance, as she was interviewed in French straight after the match. Understandably so – she is in the final!
‘Today I think I played very well, I did my best and I’m happy,’ she said, as though trying to convince herself it was so.
The problem was, Serena didn’t look happy during the match – not at any stage of it. The weight of history still bears down upon her. She wants to match the great Steffi Graf on 22 Grand Slams. Maybe she even wants it too much.
Serena must enjoy the big occasion, embrace the magic of the final, unleash her power and move freely against Muguruza.
‘I’m going to be relaxed for the final and it’s important for me that the crowd are with me.’
If she really does stay relaxed, and feels the support of a city she loves, she could win. But if the pressure of expectation gets the better of her once more, Muguruza will be ready to strike.
She has already beaten Williams here two years ago, albeit in an earlier round. Garbine is growing in confidence by the day. We have been saying for a while that she represents the biggest threat to Serena’s dominance of their sport.
Williams’ experience proved too much for Muguruza in last year’s Wimbledon final. But Muguruza won’t feel so intimidated by the big occasion this time.
Either way, we’re going to see history. Serena will draw level with Steffi on 22 Slams…or the new generation will take over from the older generation of players with a landmark victory.
What a momentous and hugely enjoyable day it’s going to be for all true tennis fans.
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