WIMBLEDON – The women’s singles final was turning out to be everything you could hope for.
Then – suddenly, unexpectedly – it wasn’t.
It was a rout.
And 23-year-old Garbiñe Muguruza earned her first Wimbledon title, her second Grand Slam title, going away.
For the Spaniard, they may be many more. But on the other side of the net, 37-year-old Venus Williams may look back with regret the opportunity lost.
It was her best opportunity during a nine-year Grand Slam drought to hold up the big trophy once more.
And for reasons that may only ever be truly known to those close to her, she crumbled.
Early promise unfulfilled
Until 4-5 in the first set the final was a battle of shaky forehands at times. But the errors were interspersed with some baseline exchanges of breathtaking quality. It was a heavyweight battle of championship caliber.
Williams had two set points, 15-40 at 4-5 on Muguruza’s serve.
A forehand into the net. A missed service return. Muguruza managed to hold.
Williams never won another game in the 7-5, 6-0 defeat.
The American’s forehand deserted her in the next game and as doubt settled into the mind, and the cumulative physical effort of six previous matches settled into her legs, her younger opponent’s championship mettle took over.
At 6-5, 30-15 as Muguruza served out the first set, Williams’s nerve failed her.
A great defensive retrieval by Muguruza went high in the air, heading for the corner of the court.
It was nowhere being an automatic out. But Williams’ feet didn’t move. It was a “Oh, please, let that ball be out” moment.
Except it wasn’t. And when it took a sideways hop off the court, it was too late for Williams to recover. One point later, the first set went to Muguruza.
“Yeah, I went out there and maybe I was too aggressive, you know, too hungry to win the point. I was missing few shots maybe too early. But they were long, so I was not that worried because I knew that eventually they were going to go inside maybe deep. So with the match and feeling more comfortable, feeling more in the court, they were getting in,” Muguruza said. “I thought it was just a matter of time, of going through the first nerves of the match, then that’s it.”
Was that the moment Venus, in her own mind, knew it was over?
A match is never over until the handshake. But as the second set began, Williams was pressing.
She double-faulted into the net – her service motion collapsing down as it has done, at times, in key moments during her career.
At 0-2, Williams threw all caution to the wind, but not necessarily in a good way.
Muguruza had come to the net more than Williams in the first set, mirroring their forward-thinking efforts through the fortnight.
But now, Williams was doing it out of desperation, illogically, foolheartedly.
Had the legs run out of steam in her seventh match in less than two weeks?
Was she panicking as she saw this golden opportunity to hold up the namesake Venus Rosewater dish above her head one last time slip away?
Even for a time-tested veteran of so many tennis battles, that possibility can’t be discounted.
Williams was behind the baseline on some of those attempts, which seemed to be more a matter of bailing out of rallies than being aggressive in a positive way. At times, she didn’t even get near the service line on the way up, making the passing shots elementary. On one butchered volley, facing yet another break point, the feet never got sorted and the miss was monumental.
The message it sent to her opponent was resounding.
Muguruza stays the course
And Muguruza, to her great credit, kept doing exactly what she had been doing. She hit hard, she missed rarely. As she said after the victory, she might have been nervous, but she was composed.
When the Spaniard faced break points, the speed on her strokes went up a measured five miles an hour.
By the time it was 5-0, and Muguruza was serving for the title, Williams had surrendered.
It’s an astonishing thing to see a grand champion just give up on such a big occasion. Even if the mountain to climb seems insurmountable, tennis’s scoring system allows a player to come back even if they’re just a single point away from losing the match.
She barely moved in that final game.
When it was over, the reaction of the crowd was eerily quiet. It was the quietest moment of the entire match, which was played under the Centre Court roof because of some misty weather outside.
When the roof is closed, every sound inside is amplified. The ball sounds like it’s hit harder. The grunts from both players sound louder, and the applause is in stereophonic sound.
But the combination of the match ending on a line-call challenge, and the disappearance of the five-time champion in its latter half left the crowd stunned. Even the perfect acoustics couldn’t up the volume to where it should have been, to the level Muguruza deserved for her big moment.
At 23, she now has four career titles. Just four. And two of them are Grand Slam titles.
Since the beginning of 2016, in 33 tournaments, Muguruza has made just two finals. Both were Grand Slam finals. And she won both of them.
“It is very hard to find, like, a recipe to feel good fitness-wise, (tennis-wise), mentally. I think in this tournament I put everything together, which is very hard,” Muguruza said. “Normally, you know, you’re tired, I feel pain here, my confidence is not there. So I felt this tournament I find somehow, you know, to put everything together and perform good at every level.”
Williams was highly gracious afterwards, as she has never failed to be no matter what.
Whatever emotions she may be feeling, whatever was preventing her from showing her best in the second set, she was keeping deep inside her.
As she did the on-court interview with former player Sue Barker, Williams said the right things. But her voice lacked conviction – until she looked into the camera and spoke to sister Serena, at home awaiting the birth of her first child.
“I tried my best to do the same you do,” Williams said. “But I think there will be other opportunities. I do!” With an arch grin, Williams was off.
Close to the vest
There was no further elaboration in her post-match media conference. There rarely is, with Williams. She keeps it private, nearly always. If there’s any conclusion tobe drawn, it’s that her answers were even shorter and less revealing than usual.
Asked about the seismic shift between the first and second sets and whether she was fatigued, she said this:
“Yeah, there’s errors, and you can’t make them. You can’t make them. I went for some big shots and they didn’t land. Probably have to make less errors.”
Asked again if she was also feeling a little tired, she didn’t respond.
“Yeah, I think she played amazing. She played amazing,”
So that’s that.
Two years ago, when Serena defeated Muguruza in the final on the same court and Muguruza couldn’t hold back the tears, the 23-time Grand Slam champion had a feeling.
"You'll be holding this trophy very, very soon – believe me"
— Wimbledon (@Wimbledon) July 15, 2017
It took two years, and it took a crushing win over her big sister, but Serena was right.