French Open 2016: Final for the ages, as Serena Williams takes on Garbine Muguruza again

Serena Williams will taken on Garbine Muguruza in the French Open final in Paris on Saturday

There was certainly one familiar element in the women’s semi-final line-up at this year’s French Open. World No1 Serena Williams, playing in her 15th Roland Garros and the three-time former and defending champion, had made it to the last four.

She may be the oldest ever No1 at the age of 34, she may have 21 Grand Slam singles titles, but she has been no less hungry to win another and draw level with the Open era record of 22 set by Steffi Graf. And her gutsy come-back over the feisty rising star Yulia Putintseva, just as much as her three one-hour wins earlier in the tournament, showed just how intent this great champion was on keeping her title.

But beyond the ever-present Williams, there were few familiar features.

The weather was one: It has been hard to recall such a rain-plagued, cold and troublesome fortnight, with heavy courts, brown balls, three-day match-delays, and crowds that would have fitted into a 1,000 seater rather than the 25,000 or so places on offer on Philippe Chatrier and Suzanne Lenglen. The fans had clearly had enough of the miserable conditions and uncertain schedule.

Another was Williams’ semi-final opponent, the No58 ranked Kiki Bertens who began the year outside the top 100 but who was enjoying the season of her 24-year-old life.

She was, indeed, a decade younger than Williams, and they had only played once before, at last year’s US Open. This year, Bertens had had to come through qualifying at almost every WTA tournament, yet she made the quarters in Hobart, the third round in Miami, and once she hit clay, she went 18-2, arriving here with both singles and doubles titles from Nurnberg.

In the draw here, Bertens, whose best Grand Slam result to date had been one fourth-round finish, reached the semis by putting out No3 seed Angelique Kerber, No29 seed Daria Kasatkina, No15 seed Madison Keys and No8 seed Timea Bacsinszky. She shrugged her shoulders in disbelief, but all the signs were that she did believe.

A third surprise was the pairing that contested the other final spot, in another battle of the ages: 32-year-old Sam Stosur took on 22-year-old Garbine Muguruza, again for only the second time. Though for a guide to how this one might pan out, their 2014 meeting on Madrid’s clay, a two-hour three-setter to Stosur, looked like a good one.

But then, the tall and powerful Muguruza was ranked only 37, age just 20, and was making a breakthrough season with her first title, a fourth-round run in Australia, and a quarter-final at Roland Garros.

And though she was now be up to No4 in the rankings, she had put together a far from hot season in 2016: Rome was her first semi-final, and she had faced only one seed through the draw here, No13 Svetlana Kuznetsova.

Stosur, in contrast, was ranked 19 when they last met, and came to Paris as a former finalist—though that was back in 2010. She also made the semis here in 2012, her best Grand Slam result since winning the US Open the year before.

She had, too, shown her clay credentials in the run-up to Paris with a final finish in Prague and the semis in Madrid. But here, it had all fallen into place for the popular Australian: She beat two other Roland Garros finalists, Lucie Safarova and Simona Halep to reach the last four.

When it came down to it, though, the form books and rankings held true to set a final of the ages between the top-four ranked women separated by 12 years in age, Williams and Muguruza.

Williams did not have it easy against Bertens, as the young Dutchwoman stole an early lead with an immediate break. She held onto it right to last moment, too, serving for the set at 5-4, but Williams levelled, 5-5, and they headed to a tiebreak.

That was just as close, with first Williams taking the lead, 5-2, then Bertens levelling for 5-5 and working a set point at 7-6, but the experience and superior serving of Williams was decisive: She took the set, 7-6(7).

Remarkably, Bertens took the lead in the second set, too, breaking for 2-0, but Williams broke straight back, and broke again in the seventh game. Bertens looked finished when serving at 4-5, but gamely resisted three break points to force Williams to serve it out. The American, of course, did just that, 6-4, having maintained the edge on winners to errors. But overall, she had won just three more points, 84 to 81.

Muguruza’s win was a more dominant and faster affair, as the 6ft Spaniard came out all guns blazing to attack the Stosur serve right from the off. She broke straight away, and broke again, for a 4-0 lead, and ran out the winner of the first set, 6-2, in just 32 minutes.

Stosur did find some more rhythm in the second set, but not before Muguruza had established a lead with nine of the 10 opening points. Stosur broke back in the fourth, 2-2 but was broken twice more for a 5-2 lead to the Spaniard.

Stosur took advantage of some late nerves from her young opponent to grab one break back, but Muguruza looked entirely composed as she served out the match, 6-4, to reach her first final in Paris, and her second Grand Slam final in under a year.

And her record against Williams is a very intriguing one. Four times they have met, every time in a Major. It was Muguruza who scored the famous second-round elimination of Williams here in 2014—since when the American has not lost a match at Roland Garros. The two also contested the final at Wimbledon last year, where the 6-4, 6-4 scoreline did not do justice to the quality of the fight.

This then is a final to whet the appetite between the most dominant woman in tennis targeting one of her sport’s biggest records, and one of the young talents tipped to be a future No1. Here, so far this year, Muguruza has done nothing to disabuse fans of that hope.

It is one not to be missed.

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