WIMBLEDON – If, on the day of the women’s single draw, someone told you Venus Williams vs. Garbiñe Muguruza was going to be the ladies’ singles final, would you have laughed?
Or would you have been intrigued by the journey?
Williams, 37, has enough of a track record this yea with the Australian Open final that her being there on the final day was not completely out of the realm of possibility.
Especially on grass. And especially at Wimbledon.
Had sister Serena been here, the scenario would have been quite different – not only for Venus, but for the rest of the field.
Mowing down the youngsters
Presuming Williams didn’t have one of those days she can have because of the Sjogren’s disease, where she wakes up and just has no energy, there was no one in her way she couldn’t overcome to get here.
She faced a series of three hard-hitting youngsters, all born in 1997, and handled them all in straight sets. Not easily – the lack of fear from the new generation is as potent a weapon as a big forehand – but with consistency.
In Johanna Konta, she faced a woman who carried a country of tennis fans on her back. Konta also had been through the wringer during this tournament, surviving Caroline Garcia and No. 2 seed Simona Halep and, most dramatically, 21-year-old Donna Vekic in the second round.
Konta won that one 10-8 in the third set. And with that, her first trip past the second round at her Home Slam, she was on her way. But against the five-time champion Williams, she just didn’t have enough.
And so Williams will be in search of a sixth Wimbledon title. It would be her first since 2008, when she defeated her sister here.
The presence of the woman is such that her stature in the game goes far beyond what she has actually accomplished over the last 15 years. Her career had come in two waves: before sister Serena surpassed her, and afterwards.
Williams has not won Wimbledon in nine years. And other than Wimbledon, she has not won a Grand Slam title since she defeated her sister in the 2001 US Open final.
It was an event held on a Saturday night for the first time. And the schedule change came, in large part, because the two sisters were expected to be fighting it out for major titles for the next decade.
Now, in Williams’ tennis dotage, she is adding a third wave. And perhaps it might be the best wave of all.
“I don’t think about my age. I know I have a lot to give, still. I don’t feel any particular age. So it’s not a factor,” Williams said. “I’m still in love with this part of my life, and I don’t want it to end.”
It has never seemed as crucial to Williams to be the best, to win it all, as it always has to her sister. She never, outwardly at least, carried the same fierce ambition. But the determination must have always burned inside of her. If it didn’t, she wouldn’t be here on this day, ready to make some history.
For Muguruza, a second title awaits
Meanwhile, her opponent is just getting started.
Muguruza’s problem, in this matchup, is that everything she does well, Williams does better on a good day. And Williams does a few more things that Muguruza doesn’t do.
Is it a (relatively) easier task than it was two years ago, when Muguruza made her first major final but had Serena Williams in front of her? Probably. But that doesn’t make it easy.
Most impressive about Muguruza in defeat in 2015 was that despite the mismatch in experience, she was hardly overwhelmed. She competed well, and she made it close.
“I just remember that everything went very quickly. I didn’t realize it. And suddenly I was in the trophy ceremony,” Muguruza told the BBC. “I’m going to take my time and really breathe out there, and enjoy, also. Because it’s very fast.”
Venus Williams is a different challenge.
Back in 2013, when Muguruza was still a teenager, Williams pulled out a victory 7-5 in the third at a small WTA Tour event in Brazil.
More recently, in the quarterfinals of Rome this year, on clay, Muguruza was the winner in three sets. It was the kind of match that signalled the Spaniard was coming out of the torpor that can affect first-time Grand Slam champions.
After winning the French Open in 2016, Muguruza had struggled with injury, with expectations, with pressure self-imposed and from the outside. Once the French Open was over this year, and the weight of defending that title (she didn’t) was off her shoulders, Muguruza is showing some of her best tennis again.
But Venus Williams isn’t Magdalena Rybarikova, the Slovak Muguruza defeated in the semifinals Wednesday.
With Rybarikova, Muguruza was able to get to the net first in many instances. But she had more opportunity to do so against an opponent a little frozen by nerves, and one who doesn’t hit the ball nearly as hard.
Against Williams, that will prove a far more difficult task. Surprisingly, Muguruza has come to the net more during this Wimbledon than Williams has.
Part of that was that Williams played a series of those young ball bashers, and the opportunities were harder to carve out. But how much each will move forward in this final will be a fascinating dynamic to watch.
In the end, it seems the two will have to mostly slug it out from the baseline.
Whoever slugs best on the day will emerge the winner.
Muguruza received a surprising amount of support from the crowd when she played Serena two years ago.
This time around, Williams is obviously the popular choice. As with Roger Federer on the men’s side, advancing age brings sentimental support.
There are never any guarantees that any Grand Slam champion will win another one. But in their mid-30s and beyond, the opportunities to do so are cherished all the more by the players and fans alike.
Muguruza will be up against that. She also will be up against a public that, in large part, doesn’t think there is any other tournament all season long besides Wimbledon.
Williams has won “their” tournament five times. She is therefore “theirs”. Muguruza is going to try to become one of theirs on Sunday.