Serena Williams has been at the top of women’s tennis so long that she’s on what might be her fourth phase of rivalries. There was Martina Hingis, Lindsay Davenport and Jennifer Capriati, followed by Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters, then Victoria Azarenka, with sister Venus Williams and Maria Sharapova (if one considers her a rival, given her last win was in 2004) spanning multiple eras.
Given the instability at the top of the women’s game in recent years, that next challenger hasn’t really emerged, though Saturday’s French Open final could represent the establishment of Garbiñe Muguruza as the primary figure in Serena’s way in what appear to be the final years of her career, aided by Muguruza becoming the first woman since Azarenka in 2012 to break through to a major final and then follow it up with a second. Though Serena’s light schedule and Muguruza’s inconsistencies since her life-altering run to the Wimbledon final against Williams last summer have kept them from meeting outside of majors, this matchup is their fifth at a Grand Slam, despite Muguruza not turning 23 until this fall.
Williams goes into every match as the favorite, but for the first time in ages, she’s not the clear-cut, no-brainer pick. Per MatchStat, Serena hasn’t been this narrow of a favorite in a match since Wimbledon 2012, and the odds haven’t been this even in a WTA final featuring her since the 2010 Australian Open, where she was actually ever-so-slightly an underdog to a fresh-out-of-retirement Henin (Williams won in three sets).
Though there’s limited matches to review, the dynamic of this final is clear: first strike tennis. In rewatching their two matches last year – a three-setter in Australia and that 6-4, 6-4 Wimbledon final – it’s obvious that Muguruza can dictate play, but she can quickly run into trouble when drawn into rallies, where the lateral movement that favors Williams -or at least a healthy Williams- comes into play.
Like many young, lanky players, Muguruza’s serve can be a weapon, but it comes and goes, occasionally falling into ruts. She’ll have to avoid that on Saturday, as no one feasts on second serves like Serena. On a surface that caters to offensive tennis, Garbi won just 6/18 second serve points in the Wimbledon final (though Serena didn’t fare much better). In comparison, she won nearly half of her second serve points in Australia last year and two-thirds in her dominant win at the 2014 French Open.
The other keys for Muguruza will be to take advantage of Serena’s often sluggish starts and to keep firing away with her backhand, which has been money all tournament, helping her not drop a set since the opening stanza of the first round. For Williams, it’s the same as ever: footwork and the serve. The inconsistency of her footwork is the main area that age has impacted, which is only amplified in high-stakes matches. As for that famous first serve, it tends to impact the rhythm she feels in the rest of her game, and she’ll need free points more than usual if her adductor injury is as big a factor has been rumored (she acknowledged it in press but understandably did not elaborate).
The x-factor here is the pressure on Serena of tying Steffi Graf’s Open Era record 22 majors. That may sound like body language mumbo jumbo, but the pressure of history weighed on Williams in 2014 as she sought to tie Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova and it manifested itself again both last fall at the U.S. Open as she approached the Calendar Year Grand Slam and in her upset loss to Angie Kerber in January’s Australian Open final.
Prediction: Muguruza in 3 to win her first major