A little less than a year ago, Garbine Muguruza walked away from Wimbledon with the runner-up trophy after losing her maiden grand slam final to Serena Williams.
She had described Williams as the “perfect” opponent to face in a major final – someone she grew up admiring and idolising. If Muguruza wanted to win a grand slam, she wanted to do it by taking down the best.
On Saturday, the Venezuelan-born Spaniard did just that to claim a first major trophy.
She walked on Court Philippe Chatrier at Roland Garros and delivered a knockout punch to Williams, who wasn’t just the top seed and defending champion, but is a 21-time major winner looking to equal Steffi Graf’s Open Era record.
Nerves may have played a factor in Muguruza’s loss to Williams at Wimbledon last year, but on Saturday, the Spaniard was fearless, powerful, dictating and focused. Williams too was locked in from the start, serving huge and hitting big.
In a clash that pit the veteran against the upstart, it was the 22-year-old Muguruza who came out and snatched the win 7-5, 6-4 in a one-hour 43-minute showdown, to become the first Spanish woman to win the French Open title since Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario in 1998.
Only four women had ever beaten Williams more than once at a grand slam. Muguruza has now become the fifth, having defeated the world No1 in the Roland Garros second round two years ago.
The 34-year-old Williams saved four championship points on her own serve to hang on for 4-5 in the second set. The American made sure that if Muguruza planned on winning the title, she would have to serve it out herself.
The Spaniard held her nerves, coming up with first serves when she needed them to get triple championship point.
There couldn’t have been a more ironic way for Muguruza to win the match. After almost two hours of monster hitting from both sides, Muguruza sealed victory with a lob, that landed smack on the lines and deceived everyone, including umpire Pascal Maria.
It wasn’t until Williams put up her hand, applauding her opponent that Muguruza realised she had just become a grand slam champion. She flung herself to the floor in disbelief.
“Serena was in front of the ball so I didn’t know if it was in or out. I looked at the chair umpire and chair umpire doesn’t want to say anything. Line judge doesn’t want to say anything. I was like ‘did I win Roland Garros? What happened?’ When he said ‘game, set, and match’, I was like, No way. I won. It was amazing,” explained Muguruza later.
Williams said “for sure” it was one of the best championship points ever played against her.
Muguruza said rebounding from those four squandered match points was not easy. But she had promised herself she would control her emotions throughout the fortnight and she wasn’t planning on ditching that plan in the final.
“To be honest I squeezed my ass big time,” her French coach Sam Sumyk happily revealed when asked about those four match points.
Muguruza said: “It was very difficult to see you have four match points and doesn’t go your way. But it’s a final. There’s no room for being disappointed or for excuses… I just tried to be calm.”
Congrats Garbiñe for your win at Roland Garros. Great news for Spanish tennis!— Rafa Nadal (@RafaelNadal) June 4, 2016
The Spaniard was even calm in her victory speech. There were no tears, no choking up… It was the sight of a player who clearly is comfortable on the grand stage and wants to return there as often as possible.
“I’m very happy, because today I proved to myself that I can play really well, that I can manage my stress and win against one of the best players in the world,” said Muguruza.
“I think I’m ambitious. I think I have a strong character and I like competition. I like to compete. I like to play against the best players. This is a source of motivation for me.
“Of course I’m very happy, but I’d like to have more. My dream is to continue and win more tournaments, similar tournaments, and to dominate.”
Muguruza was clutch from the start, saving two break points and needing 10 minutes to hold for 2-2 in the first set. A double fault from Williams gave the No4 seed the first break of the match and she consolidated with a scorching forehand down the line winner.
The Spaniard’s ability to seamlessly change direction of the ball was remarkable, and even though Williams got the break back, Muguruza did not fade, breaking again in the 11th game en route to a one-set lead.
They traded breaks in the first three games in the second set, but Muguruza pulled away 3-1 and never looked back.
“She won the first set by one point. That just goes to show you, you really have to play the big points well, and I think she played the big points really well,” said Williams, who is now 21-6 in grand slam finals.
“She’s definitely hitting hard. She just goes for broke on every shot and it works for her…
“I think she has a bright future, obviously. She knows how to play on the big stage and she clearly knows how to win grand slams.”
It’s funny how things turn out sometimes. Rain has been a real pain the last two weeks in Paris but the mayhem in the schedule meant that both men’s and women’s semi-finals were played on Friday – which is usually not the case – and they were split on two stadiums, Philippe Chatrier and Suzanne Lenglen.
It drove organisers to sell new tickets for Lenglen for a measly €20 which meant fans got to see Novak Djokovic take on Dominic Thiem, and Garbine Muguruza take on Sam Stosur for less than what I would pay for a sandwich and two juices in the media cafeteria here.
The ground pass holders were given free access to Lenglen as well. It’s a tennis fan’s dream come true really. Yet somehow the stadium was virtually empty during the first semi-final on Lenglen between Muguruza and Stosur.
Even more bizarre was the sight of the bare seats on Chatrier for Williams and Bertens.
Attendance has taken a hit this fortnight and all things considered, it’s quite understandable.
Cold, wet weather, floods around the Seine, big-name withdrawals… all factors that do not bode well for any tournament. But still, watching a Serena Williams semi-final, in 12-degree weather, in front of empty stands was a real dreary situation.
It didn’t help that the start of the match coincided with the holy French lunch time, which is something not to be messed with. The stands did fill up for the men’s matches though, as Djokovic took on Thiem on Lenglen and Andy Murray played Stan Wawrinka on Chatrier.
Chatrier even had some famous faces in the stands with repeat visitor Leonardo Di Caprio in attendance, as well as Manchester United legend Eric Cantona.
Murray was asked if he ever notices when there are celebrities in the stands for his matches.
Eric Cantona in the crowd at Roland Garros. I dare Andy Murray to kung-fu kick him.— Sachin Nakrani (@SachinNakrani) June 3, 2016
“I met Eric Cantona afterwards. But, no, not always that aware of what’s going on in the crowd. You know, more kind of focused on my team and the court, what’s going on on there. Yeah, I don’t often see what’s going on off the court,” said the Scot.
And is he fan of Cantona?
“I don’t think many people aren’t. Incredibly talented guy. Fun to watch. Yeah, it was nice to meet him. He’s a legend in British football. So, yeah, it was very, very nice to meet him,” added Murray.
There is a reason why they are two prominent figures of the fabled ‘Big Four’ – when a grand slam reaches its business end, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray know how to find another gear.
It’s why it is no surprise the two 29-year-olds will face off in tomorrow’s French Open final after delivering their best performances of the fortnight in their respective semi-finals on Friday.
Just three days ago, Djokovic was down a set to Roberto Bautista Agut in the fourth round and battling to deal with the heavy conditions to overcome the Spaniard. Last week, Murray had to fight through back-to-back five-setters against Radek Stepanek and Mathias Bourgue in the opening two rounds.
But on Friday, Djokovic edged closer to capturing a fourth consecutive major title (are we calling it a Novak Slam yet?) and completing a career grand slam with a brutal 6-2, 6-1, 6-4 win over 13th-seeded Dominic Thiem, while Murray put together arguably the best clay display of his career in a 6-4, 6-2, 4-6, 6-2 dismissal of defending champion Stan Wawrinka.
Djokovic is into his fourth French Open final while Murray became the first British man since 1937 to reach the Roland Garros final and his triumph over Wawrinka ended his six-match losing streak against top-four opposition in grand slams.
“Best performance of the tournament. As I was hoping after the long fourth round that I’m going to start playing better as the tournament progresses, and that’s what’s happening now,” said Djokovic after his 108-minute victory over Thiem.
“So I’m very pleased with the way things are going.”
Djokovic has had to play on three successive days due to the rain and he is grateful he now has Saturday off to prepare for the final.
“I put myself in a position in which I wanted to be in of course, ever since last year’s final (when I lost to Wawrinka). I was hoping that the clay-court season would be successful in the other tournaments, but mostly in this one,” said the world No1.
“It’s always high on the priority list when I start a season thinking about Roland Garros, and to be able to reach finals is really special. I give myself another opportunity to win the trophy.
“For a change, it’s great to have a day off tomorrow,” Djokovic added with a smile. “I think it’s gonna serve well to recover, to get that energy supply, and Sunday I’ll give my all, as always.”
Djokovic took a two-set lead inside 70 minutes but Thiem opened himself a tiny window to breathe when he broke the top seed for the first time and created a 3-0 advantage in the third set.
But the lead was short-lived for the 22-year-old Austrian sensation as Djokovic struck back and ran away with a straight-sets win.
Simultaneously on Chatrier, Murray was mercilessly dismantling Wawrinka, the man who 12 months ago was delivering the same kind of drubbing to Djokovic in the final.
Extending his winning streak to 11, on clay, having won the Rome title a little over two weeks ago, Murray saved four of the five break points he faced, hit 25 winners against 22 unforced errors and took 79 per cent of the points on his first serve.
“I didn’t necessarily expect to be here a few years ago,” said Murray, whose wife Kim and four-month-old daughter Sophia were on-site Friday.
“So, yeah, got to try and enjoy it. Proud I have managed to reach the final of all four (grand slams).
“It was a tough atmosphere today, as well. You know, handled that extremely well.
“To reach the finals of the French the first time, that’s a big moment for me. It’s not an easy thing to do.”
Wawrinka looked almost helpful during long stretches of the match, as he allowed Murray to dictate play.
The Swiss world No4 had beaten Murray in their previous three encounters, but even when he took the third set, Wawrinka looked nowhere near someone who would win that match.
“I think I have never played against him as strong as he was playing today,” said the 31-year-old Wawrinka.
“Of course I’m disappointed. I could play better. I could have tried to turn the match around, but I couldn’t find the solutions today. I didn’t know how to increase my level of game to fight back.”