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?”
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