For it was back in 1999 that a 17-year-old Serena Williams would announce her arrival on the biggest stage with victory at the US Open.
The very next year, it was the turn of her elder sister Venus, just turned 20, who won her first Major at Wimbledon and went on to win in New York a few weeks later.
Serena has gone on to win 23 Majors, Venus seven, and between them they won 12 Wimbledon titles. And each would surely have won more had they not faced one another in so many Major title matches: nine of them—and four more times they met before the finals.
And should their fellow players anticipate some respite from the two indomitable sisters, they might look at this year’s Australian Open: 16 years after their first Major title clash, they contested another. Serena won, only to announce that she had been pregnant at the time.
Now on maternity leave, perhaps there was respite at last for the rest—but no. At the tournament Venus loves the best, that has yielded five titles, the elder Williams strode onto Centre Court on final Saturday once again. She is 37, and had not won a Major since her last Wimbledon trophy in 2008.
Along the way to this final, Williams’ age had been thrown into sharp relief by her opponents: a 21-year-old, two teenagers, then the 20-year-old new star on the block, French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko. Then it was No6 seed Johanna Konta, home favourite and winner of three of their five previous matches. Williams dropped only six games.
By the time she faced her final opponent, the statuesque 23-year-old Garbine Muguruza, she had notched up a tally of 87 Wimbledon match-wins, 101 matches altogether, in her 20th Wimbledon appearance—more than her sister on both counts.
But her final opponent was more than a little familiar with Centre Court herself. The Spaniard had been losing finalist—to Serena, of course—two years ago. She had also gone on to win the French Open the next year, so was not intimidated by the big occasion nor the big stage.
Williams had the upper hand when it came to previous meetings, 3-1, but that one win was at their most recent. It was a three-setter and on Williams’ least favourite surface, the clay of Rome.
And when it comes to rangy, big-time tennis, the elegant 6ft Spaniard could deliver. She had struggled, as many young players do, to maintain expectations after those breakthrough Major runs. Indeed she had not reached a final since the Roland Garros victory—until today. Now she also had former Wimbledon champion and compatriot Conchita Martinez in her corner.
Martinez beat Martina Navratilova in 1994, and is also Spain’s Fed Cup captain, so in the absence of Muguruza’s regular coach, Martinez accompanied her compatriot here. It worked wonders. Muguruza explained:
“Well, I think I’m here [in the final] because I’ve done hard work before. The magic doesn’t happen just because somebody comes in, and all of a sudden you are incredible. No.
“I think she’s helping me how to deal with the tournament, because obviously it’s a Grand Slam, and it’s difficult to handle because it’s two weeks. She has experience.”
The articulate Muguruza was keen to point out that she, too, now had more experience.
“I think my mind is more equipped this time because the more experience you get, the more you know how to deal with these situations, because they’re very special. So I just have more information about the situation.”
The signs of her hard work, her growing calmness and experience, were already showing in her results. She had prepared for Wimbledon with a semi-final run in Birmingham, and here she had the taken out the formidable No7 seed Svetlana Kuznetsova and the world No1 Angelique Kerber, the only woman who had taken a set from the Spaniard.
The final was a tense and edgy start, under the closed roof, with the first seven games taking almost half an hour.
Not surprisingly, both hammered in big serves and followed up with equally big forehands, but Muguruza showed an early willingness to come to the net, too.
Williams began with an ace and held with a backhand winner: A statement of intent. Muguruza opened with a double fault, but twice pounded to the net to finish points.
Williams’ serving began superbly, with one 110+mph serve after another, and after a love hold, she pressed the Spaniard’s serve and earned a break point. But Muguruza stood her ground and stayed on level terms, 3-3.
Now things cranked up a level as their rallies grew long and more gasp-inducing for the crowd. Williams showed she was far from infallible with no fewer than three double faults in the seventh game, yet she kept up the attack, aced to hold, and then held to love for 5-4.
She looked strong, confident and determined, living with the pace and power from Muguruza to earn a couple of backhand errors and two break points, set points, but could not convert. Having survived that threat, Muguruza hit straight back to earn two break points of her own, and won a huge baseline exchange. One more storming rally sealed her service game and the set, 7-5.
The match promised a lot more of the same, but the Spaniard had other ideas. She went for her shots with extra vigour, now overpowering Williams, and the American buckled under the pressure, double faulting on a second break point.
Williams tried coming to the net, but Muguruza zipped winners past her, and she dominated the baseline rallies too. It became a remarkable display of sustained power and placement, combined with strong serving and even better returning.
Another break, and one more in the sixth game, and Muguruza fell to her knees, the 6-0 victor. Williams afterwards summed it up:
“I think she played amazing. She played amazing.”
It was, then, the end of the latest instalment of the Williams’ family fairytale, but surely the beginning of a Spanish one.
Only Muguruza’s coach, Martinez, had won this title for their home nation before, and when she did so, it was with the largest age-gap between the 22-year-old Martinez and 37-year-old Navratilova.
Martinez would never win another: Muguruza now has two, and with this new self-belief—and that growing experience—she shows all the signs of going well beyond two Majors. That is, she admitted, what she plays for:
“I think once I go to the big court, I feel good. I feel like that’s where I want to be, that’s what I practise for. That’s where I play good. I’m happy to go to Centre Court and to play the best player. That’s what motivates me.”
No-one mentioned one day reaching No1, but it is a question that must follow soon if she carries this tennis to every other Major.
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