WIMBLEDON – So often in sports, Cinderella stories can end before the clock actually strikes midnight.
The fairy-tale finish line sometimes is a little ahead of the actual one.
The more experienced, like Venus Williams and Garbiñe Muguruza in the Wimbledon semi-finals, have a more developed sense of pacing. They know, because they’ve done it before, where the true finish line is and have a better sense of direction about getting there.
That real finish line at Wimbledon is on Saturday. And the player who crosses it first will be holding up the Venus Rosewater Dish on famed Centre Court.
Venus will try for No. 6, at 37
At 37, Williams is writing a final chapter to her 20-year tennis career that is quickly becoming even more of a page turner than the many compelling chapters that came before.
Her 6-4, 6-2 win over No. 6-seeded Brit Johanna Konta Thursday was a master class in consistency and focus from a player whose technical flaws haven’t always allowed her that luxury. She’s been there, if not for many years. She’s done that. And she knew what to do.
For Konta, who didn’t play poorly but who didn’t play well enough, it was the best Wimbledon of her career by far. And it certainly offered hope that Great Britain can one day have a matched set: a modern women’s champion to go with modern men’s champion Andy Murray.
“She dictated the match from the very first ball till the very last one. I think she just showed her true qualities and why she’s a five-time champion here, just a true champion that she is,” Konta said. “It was very difficult for me to get a good foothold in the match. The few opportunities that I did get, she did incredibly well to take them away from me. I don’t think I did too much wrong out there. I think it was all credit to her.”
The difference came with the forehands. For both, it’s the weaker side. But Williams wouldn’t allow it to be a weakness on Thursday. Instead, she went about breaking down that side in her opponent.
Konta has improved the shot, to be sure. And in doing so she has brought herself into the top 10. But the ghosts of the older, poorer technique tend to appear like unwelcome weekend guests in extreme moments.
That’s true not just of Konta, but of any less-experienced competitor vying to achieve beyond what they’ve done before, against an opponent who has already done it.
Williams had a huge part in making that happen.
And after Konta had break points to go up 5-3 and serve for the first set – and didn’t make them – it was all but over. When your opponent is down break point, down to a second serve – and fires it in at 106 mph – you have to know you’re in for a tough day.
Muguruza to second Wimbledon final
Earlier, Spain’s Garbiñe Muguruza ended the self-title “fairy tale” of 28-year-old Magdalena Rybarikova with an efficient 6-1, 6-1, dismantling. It took just 65 minutes and sent a loud message to the rest of the WTA Tour: I was lost, but now I’m found.
There was no doubt Rybarikova froze in the biggest moment of her career. Who wouldn’t, really? The Slovak might have dreamed of some day making the semifinals of Wimbledon. But after the year she has been through, with two surgeries and a long fight back up the rankings at the lowest levels of tennis, who knew it would be this year?
“Because she was the favorite, she had the pressure, she’s supposed to win this match. She handled it absolutely amazing. But I just wanted to play good match. I just wanted the crowd to enjoy that. I don’t think so they did because was very fast match,” Rybarikova said. “Even we had some very good rallies, but I was, like, sometimes I could not believe. Sometimes I really was great, and she played even better.”
Absent was the free-swinging, serene, grass-court craftswoman who upset soon-to-be No. 1 Karolina Pliskova earlier in the tournament. But such are the twists and turns of Cinderella stories. They tend to finish before the end – Jelena Ostapenko at the French Open being a notable exception.
Rybarikova admitted she was nervous, that her legs were a little weary, and that she didn’t handle the big occasion the way she would have liked. Mostly, though, there was too much Muguruza to counter.
The logic is that even if Rybarikova went no further, she could still close the book on a spectacular tournament. For Muguruza, who has played on the final Saturday here and has hoisted up the champion’s trophy at Roland Garros, the story needed to continue.
Muguruza find old self
Muguruza’s renaissance this Wimbledon has been somewhat unexpected, and throughly impressive. The reasons for it can only be speculative. But the one big difference for her this fortnight has been the presence of countrywoman Conchita Martinez at her side.
“I think she’s helping me to deal with the stress of the tournament, because it’s a long tournament. I’ve been here already since a while. … So she just knows, you know, how to prepare, how to train, what to do,” Muguruza said. “Not that I’m doing something different, honestly. But, you know, to have her by my side gives me also this little confidence on having someone that has won before.”
Spanish combo clicking
Martinez, who is both the Davis Cup and Fed Cup captain for Spain, won Wimbledon in 1994 and looks to be the chill to Muguruza’s ice.
Muguruza’s regular coach, Frenchman Sam Sumyk, is not here as he returned to California to await the birth of his first child with wife Meilen Tu, a former player and currently a player agent. Their frosty relationship has played out in public many times. Under his guidance, Muguruza won the 2016 French Open. But she hasn’t won a tournament since. She has not even made a final.
She said Sumyk is in regular contact.
“Conchita and Sam are really working together. Before I do something, they both decided. So it’s not that that magic is not happening. I think I’m here because I’ve been working not only the last few days, but longer time, getting ready for this kind of moment,” she said. “I think a lot of things are clicking also with her and the team this week, so it’s very nice.”
There have been some inexplicable early losses, including a 6-1, 6-0 loss to Barbora Strycova in Muguruza’s first match at Eastbourne the week before Wimbledon. But there have been recent glimmers of hope, including a three-set win over Venus Williams in Rome.
The player who destroyed Rybarikova Thursday was the old, aggressive, take-no-prisoners Muguruza. She took the net away from her more forward-thinking opponent by taking it over herself, It was welcome shift in tactics in the tournament, bringing back an element that had disappeared in recent months in tandem with Muguruza’s decision to forego doubles.
Been there, done that
When it comes to Saturday’s final, Martinez can be of significant help once again to her younger charge. She has not only been there; she has been almost exactly there. And she did that.
When Martinez won Wimbledon in 1994, she defeated a player who remains the oldest woman to reach a Grand Slam final in the Open era in Martina Navratilova.
Navratilova was a Wimbledon legend; Martinez was the Spanish outsider, although an accomplished one given she was the No. 3 seed.
Martinez was 22 then; Muguruza is 23. Williams is 206 days younger than Navratilova was in that 1994 final.
Will history repeat? Or will Williams add another major title to her resumé, her first in nine years?
If she does, at her age, it will be a victory for the ages.
“There were definitely some issues. I had a lot of issues. This year has been amazing in terms of my play, playing deep into the big events actually. Of course, I’m excited about being again in another final. Try to take it a step further,” Williams said. “There’s still a lot to be done. I have one more match that I’d like to, you know, be the winner of. I have to go out there and take it and play well. But I like to take courage in the fact that I’ve been playing well this tournament and this year, and all these moments have led to this.”