The king of clay is dead, long live the new Spanish queen.
Garbiñe Muguruza upset Serena Williams at Roland Garros on Saturday to win her first grand slam title and deny the American what would have been a record-tying 22nd grand slam title. The 22-year-old produced a seemingly nerve-free performance to win 7-5, 6-4, serving out for the biggest win of her career to give her country yet another clay-court hero, to compensate for Rafa Nadal’s withdrawal through injury after two rounds of the men’s singles.
This was meant to be the day Williams joined Steffi Graf on the open-era record of 22 grand slam titles, a belated achievement after narrowly missing out at the US Open in New York last year and even more narrowly, at the Australian Open in January. But the American, who showed no signs of the adductor injury she was reportedly carrying coming into the final, was outplayed and, almost unbelievably, outgunned by the No4 seed, who played the match of her life.
The pressure was almost unbearable as Williams fended off four match points on her own serve at 5-3 down and there must have been many inside Court Philippe Chatrier who thought the Spaniard had missed her chance. But Muguruza is made of strong stuff and she held serve to love, clinching the title when Williams allowed a lob to drop just inside the baseline.
“I am so, so excited,” said Muguruza, who almost couldn’t believe it when her lob was called in. “This is the tournament in Spain, being on clay, Rafa is the champion and to win here is the best. I can’t explain with words what this day means to me. You work all your life to get here. I grew up on clay so for Spain and for me this is just amazing.”
The withdrawal of Nadal just before his third-round match because of the nine-time champion’s wrist injury, cast a shadow over the whole of Spanish tennis but Muguruza showed why she has been tipped for the top for so long.
Williams, who had been the big favourite, was given a rousing reception as she accepted her runner-up prize but Muguruza, who accepted the winner’s trophy from the former American great Billie Jean King, was a deserving winner.
This was Muguruza’s first ever clay-court final and for those looking for omens the last time that happened was in 1988, when Natasha Zvereva was walloped in 32 minutes by Graf. But two years ago on the same court, Muguruza beat Williams for the loss of just four games and though she was well beaten by the American in the Wimbledon final last summer, that experience surely helped her on Saturday as she coped with whatever was thrown at her and giving more than her own back.
Williams had struggled for rhythm in her quarter-final and, after again battling to overcoming Kiki Bertens of the Netherlands to make the final, the 34-year-old had reluctantly admitted to reports that she had been carry an injury, reportedly to an adductor. There was no sign of any injury, though, as she began strongly, dropping just one point in her first two service games, having been put into bat by the Spaniard, who won the toss of the coin. Muguruza, too, looked relaxed but Williams was moving fluently and immediately looked ready for business. Muguruza did well to save two early break points with good serving and a fine hold for 2-2 gave her confidence.
That game may even have been the turning point as a Williams double-fault handed Muguruza the break in the very next game. Trading massive blows from the baseline, Muguruza was able to respond to Williams’ power and even up it at times – her down-the-line forehand a stunning stroke. Having held for 4-2, she was then broken back for 4-4 but an enormous cross-court forehand winner gave her another break for 6-5 and she held her nerve to close out the first set.
Things got even better when she broke in the first game of the second set and, though Williams broke back immediately, another break gave her a 2-1 lead, which she consolidated with a good hold to follow.
The Williams serve, so long the best shot in the women’s game, looked vulnerable and Muguruza had the courage and the ability to attack it and even make it look average. The American hung in, as she always does, but Muguruza held serve throughout and at 5-3, she had Williams at 15-40, two Championship points.
Muguruza netted a backhand on the first and a Williams ace saved the second. Two more came and went as the drama was ratcheted up another notch, Williams forcing Muguruza to serve it out. But the Spaniard – with her coach, Sam Samuyk, looking on – held her nerve brilliantly to win the first of what could be many grand slam titles.
For Williams, it is another blow to her hopes of matching and surpassing Graf, something that had seemed only a matter of time, ever since she passed Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova on 18 at the US Open in 2014.
But her loss to Roberta Vinci in the semi-finals in New York, her loss to Angelique Kerber in the final in Melbourne and now the loss to Muguruza in Paris means she will have to wait until Wimbledon, at least, for the next opportunity.
“To Patrick, my coach, I wanted to win but hopefully next year,” an emotional Williams said.
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