For a third time, Serena Williams will attempt to equal Steffi Graf’s Open Era record of 22 grand slams and standing between her and that historic milestone is Garbine Muguruza, a player she has lost to at the French Open before.
Saturday’s title clash in Paris is a rematch of last year’s Wimbledon final, which was when Williams lifted her last major trophy.
The 34-year-old American has come so close to equaling that Graf record, falling just two matches short at the US Open last September, and falling to Angelique Kerber in the Australian Open final five months ago.
“If I get there it will be great,” Williams says of the 22 mark she is chasing.
“Nothing I can do about it. The only thing can I do is just play to win the tournament and that’s it.”
Her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, admits that it would be impossible for Williams to keep the prospect of matching Graf’s tally off her mind but he is confident in his charge’s ability to deal with the pressure.
“Everybody tells her every day, so it has to be on her mind. But it’s okay. It’s just dealing with pressure and it’s something she’s doing quite well,” said Mouratoglou, who faces off with a fellow French coach, Sam Sumyk in the final.
“She doesn’t do it well all the time because she’s human, but most of the time she’s one of the best in the world to deal with pressure because she has the highest pressure of all players every single day of her life.”
Seeking a fourth title victory at Roland Garros, Williams, the defending champion, could become the oldest Roland Garros winner of all-time should she defeat Muguruza on Saturday.
Retired ex-Wimbledon champion and current presenter at Roland Garros, Marion Bartoli, said on TV that Williams is struggling with an adductor injury, which she reportedly received extensive treatment for after Thursday’s quarter-final.
“I don’t know anything about it. I don’t know, maybe she’s closer to Serena than me,” Mouratoglou said sarcastically, referring to Bartoli. “As far as I know, yes (Serena’s fit).”
Williams was a little more forthcoming in her press conference when told Bartoli had talked about her physical condition, saying: “I have had some issues, but, you know, it is what it is.”
To reach the final, Williams ended Kiki Bertens’ 12-match winning streak (at all levels) 7-6 (7), 6-4 in the semi-finals on Friday. Playing in front of a near-empty stadium in 12-degree weather, Williams fought back from a break down in both sets before overcoming the Dutch world No58, raising her level when it mattered the most.
“It almost doesn’t have the aura of a grand slam this year,” Chris Evert said on Eurosport, and she was right. The rainy, cold weather, floods in Paris and numerous withdrawals have almost killed the spirit of the French Open this fortnight.
But not according to Williams, who feels her final opponent, Muguruza, has had an incredible French Open so far. The Spanish 22-year-old reached her first French Open final with a 6-2, 6-4 win over former runner-up Sam Stosur.
Muguruza is 1-3 head-to-head against Williams, with her sole victory against the American coming in the Roland Garros second round two years ago.
“I think Muguruza has been playing really well. She’s been playing a really aggressive game and going for her shots. Regardless, I think it will be a good match,” said Williams.
“Last time we played here in France she was able to win the match. I learned so much from that match. I hate to lose, but when I do, I hope it was worth it. That match was definitely one of those that was kind of needed and worth it. So I look forward to hopefully learning from that.”
The Spanish world No4 has made swift progress since she had her breakthrough moment against Williams. She owns only two WTA titles, but is already into her second grand slam final. Muguruza has shown that she is a big-match player. The grander the stage, the tougher she plays. Her 2-0 record in major semi-finals a true testament to that.
“I think she proved that she has it,” says Sumyk of Muguruza, his mentee. “I think she proved that she’s a hell of a player. She has a lot of mental resources. She enjoys and is not worried to play in front of a full crowd.”
Sumyk does not put much weight on Muguruza’s previous win over Williams in Paris, “it was 250 years ago” he says, but believes having the experience of facing off with the world No1 in the Wimbledon final last year can help her.
Mouratoglou hailed Muguruza’s aggressive game-style and said the key to the match would be with whomever imposes her game first.
“I don’t see any of those two players winning by defending,” said Williams’ coach.
“I think Muguruza’s a great player. She 100 per cent deserves to be where she is. But as always I’d like to think that the keys of the final are in Serena’s hands, which has always been the case in her career.
“We don’t plan on winning because Garbine is going to play bad, we plan on winning because Serena is going to be better. In Wimbledon I don’t think Garbine played her best tennis but I think if she would, Serena would’ve still won.”
Muguruza is not looking at the past as she has her eyes set firmly on the French Open crown.
She said: “I don’t want to talk about Wimbledon. I’ll have nothing to lose, so I will try and win against the best tennis player in the world. That’s all. I’ll try and control my emotions, and I hope I can win this title. Why not?”
Dominic Thiem admits he felt “empty” after exiting the French Open at the hands of Novak Djokovic in the semi-finals but the Austrian is already looking forward to getting back to that stage at a major soon.
Projected to crack the top-10 for the first time on Monday, Thiem has created waves this season on tour, and has amassed the second-most number of victories in 2016 – 41, just two wins behind leader Djokovic.
“Novak was just too strong today. That’s all I can say,” said Thiem on Friday after his semi-final in Paris.
“But still it inspires me to even work harder. I hope I get a new chance soon in the future.
“Right now I’m feeling empty, of course, but it’s normal. It’s after every tournament like this, all the pressure goes away a little bit.
“Of course also a little bit disappointment.”
Thiem will rise to No7 in the world when the new rankings come out in two days, and at 22, will be the youngest player in the top-10.
“It’s very nice. It’s a big milestone, I think, for every tennis player to break into the top-10. But, yeah, right now I’m not really happy about it, but I hope that I can be when I see the new ranking on Monday,” he said.
Thiem has so far proven to be the most successful prospect from the up-and-coming generation in tennis, and is expected to have a bright future in the sport.
He has four top-10 victories under his belt, owns six ATP titles and is now a grand slam semi-finalist.
Clay is his best surface and he leads the tour in number of wins on the red dirt this season with 25.
Asked how far he felt his level was from Djokovic after the match, Thiem said: “Well, I think he played really well today, but I also think that sometimes – or mostly throughout the match – I made it maybe a little bit too easy for him, too many mistakes.
“But, yeah, it’s tough against him. He doesn’t give you any presents. Return is unbelievable. It was already the problem yesterday that I didn’t get any free points with the serve.
“Yeah, then if you have to play basically every game without serve, without the advantage of serve, it’s going to be unbelievably tough against him.”
Djokovic heaped praise on the young Austrian yesterday and believes he will be sticking around at the top.
“He carries himself very well on and off the court for his age,” said Djokovic.
“He’s a leader of a new generation, very powerful, and has a lot of strength and variety in his game. I managed to handle his heavy spin very well today, but I’m sure that, as I told him after the match, we’re going to see a lot of him in the future if he continues doing so well.”
In the three-week period between the French Open and Wimbledon, Thiem is scheduled to play in the grass events in Stuttgart and Halle before heading to Mallorca to play in the Toni Nadal Cup exhibition.
Williams won that in straight sets for her 21st Grand Slam title, but Muguruza, at 22, 12 years younger than the American, has improved further since then.
The top seed and defending champion kept alive her hopes of a record-equalling 22nd Grand Slam title against unseeded Dutchwoman Kiki Bertens.
But her form was at best patchy as she laboured to a 7-6 (9/7), 6-4 semi-final win.
The fourth seeded Muguruza, meanwhile, underlined her fine form with a 6-2, 6-4 win over Australia’s Samantha Stosur to reach a Grand Slam final for just the second time.
Williams already looked out-of-sorts in her quarter-final on Thursday against 60th ranked Yulia Putintseva, having to claw her way back from a set and a break down to get through.
And it was another ponderous start from the three-time former winner against her 58th-ranked, opponent.
Bertens, who had never made it past the fourth round of a Grand Slam tournament prior to Paris, went 2-0 up before Williams opened her account.
The Dutchwoman failed to convert a set point at 5-3 with Williams serving and then a pair of drop shots in the next game brought up a break-back point for the American which she converted with a big forehand drive.
Bertens appeared to be having trouble with an injury to her left calf muscle as Williams took the lead for the first time in the match, but she held firm to force a tie-break.
In that, Williams eased ahead 5-2 after losing the first point on her serve, but two botched volleys at the net saw her hand a set point back to Bertens before she found some form to take it 9/7.
The pair exchanged service breaks to get the second set underway and Bertens then failed to take two break points to get to 4-2.
She paid the price for that minutes later as Williams grabbed the break she needed to put the match away, needing four match points in the end.
Muguruza, who is the first Spanish woman in 16 years to reach the French Open final, has had it easier in the other half of the draw.
She was in command against 32-year-old Stosur, a former US Open champion, from the start but had difficulty putting away the match from 5-2 up in the second.
With the Suzanne Lenglen court barely half-full, Muguruza shrugged off the ghostly atmosphere as well as the bone-jarring 13 degrees to race into a 4-0 lead.
The Australian won just six points in that early blitz before she got on the board with a service hold in the fifth game.
But the 6ft (1.82m) Venezuelan-born Muguruza continued to dominate, sweeping the first set in 32 minutes.
There were was no let-up in the second set as the 22-year-old Spaniard broke for 1-0 and held a love service game to go to 2-0.
Stosur rallied for a break back, but Muguruza retrieved it immediately for 3-2 on the back of unrelenting, deep and flat hitting.
Muguruza, a quarter-finalist in the last two years, carved out a fifth break of the match for 5-2 after a sixth double-fault by Stosur on her way to sealing victory.