The final sequence of Garbine Muguruza’s first Grand Slam title could not have better represented both the triumph and the challenge of triumphing against Serena Williams in the ultimate round of a slam. After the Spaniard snatched a second serve return wide on her fourth match point while leading 7-5 5-3, the famous old Williams fight kicked into gear and the 21 time Grand Slam champion mounted for her last stand.
Not only did Muguruza squander four championship points, but she was forced to take the long walk back to her seat. She then had to spend 90 seconds desperately attempting to avoid mulling over every decision and analysing every error that led to the failure to capture her first slam title.
Even against a physically-affected Serena Williams at a point in her career where she has struggled deep in the final rounds of slams, this is the ultimate challenge of facing Williams in a slam final. It takes so much to merely believe that it is possible to defeat Williams, and then to transfer that belief into forehands and backhands.
But even that alone is insufficient. The essential part of surviving this situation is separating nerves from belief. When the nerves arrive and a fighting Williams prepares to wreak havoc across the net, no opponent will defeat Williams if they are unable to retain the belief needed to see it out.
Throughout the afternoon, Muguruza put on a flawless exhibition of retaining that belief. Although the Spaniard played a great match and constantly controlled the match, she was also affected by nerves and the top seed constantly fighting her way back into the match. At times Williams thundered back to equal the match with untouchable play, and other times Muguruza’s serve abandoned her in a pile of double faults.
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But each time, Muguruza demonstrated the resilience that drove her to victory. When she was pegged back in the first set, she recovered and destroyed Williams’ service game to snatch an essential break at 5-5. When her serve wobbled with consecutive double faults during the second set, she responded with two unreturnable serves and dismounted with a laser-like backhand down the line.
And when it was time for Muguruza to rise from her seat and march to the service line to serve for her first Grand Slam title, the Spaniard didn’t flinch. She kept her poise, she retained her belief and didn’t lose another point, serving out her first slam title to love with a perfectly judged lob.
Muguruza gave hints throughout the week that she was ready to step up and fulfil her promise. When she faced her first big challenge in an in-form Svetlana Kuznetsova, she met the challenge by playing at a frightening level for one set, before carefully navigating the 2009 champion’s second set revival.
In her quarterfinal against a peaking Shelby Rogers, Muguruza stared down a set point on her opponent’s serve. Muguruza could have played the set point with safety and care, but she refused. She was going to take back the set point on her own terms and put her match back on track, and that’s what she did. Muguruza immediately broke back, she held, she broke again and rolled through the remainder of the match to reach her first Roland Garros semi-final.
In her current rut, Williams has bestowed the gift of career best victories on many players. At the US Open, it was Roberta Vinci who infamously ended her Grand Slam run and reached the final. At this year’s Australian Open, Kerber spent two and a half hours curling passing shots by a panicking Williams who kept on coming in. Although Williams arrived in the final with an adductor injury and was without her full range of movement, this result is clearly different. While the other victories against Williams represented the conclusion and peak to a career’s work, this is clearly a beginning.
US player Serena Williams returns the ball to Spain's Garbine Muguruza during their women's final match at the Roland Garros 2016 French Tennis Open in Paris on June 4, 2016
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It will take a lot for Muguruza to ever find genuine consistency, and it isn’t a likely event. Of the players with similar tall, big-hitting characteristics without the movement to guide them through rougher patches, very few have ever achieved even a modicum of consistency. Most are usually doomed to volatile results and fluctuations in form, as currently demonstrated by two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova. That Muguruza arrived in the tournament with as many Grand Slam finals as overall singles titles - and her victory marks only her third title - is evidence to her inconsistency.
“I think the important tournaments are the ones you've got to play well, the ones that really count, the ones that really take you to the top level,” she explained afterwards
With her victory, Muguruza has very much proven that she is a big match player who rises for the biggest tournaments and performs her best at the top level. The physical, mental and emotional aspects of her game have finally come together, and the clear message her victory in Paris is transmitting across the WTA is that there is only more to come.