For a couple of years now, Serena Williams has had one rival: herself.
Gone are the likes of Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters, mentally tough baseliners who could go toe-to-toe with Williams on the game’s biggest stages. Henin even had a winning 4-3 record against her in majors. Serena’s older sister Venus is still around, but is rarely at the forefront anywhere other than Wimbledon. While decorated players like Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka, Grand Slam champions in their own right, have replaced them, their dismal records against Williams are well documented.
She owns this generation of upper tier players, whether it’s poor movers like Sharapova and Azarenka, power-starved baseliners like Caroline Wozniacki, Aga Radwanska and Carla Suarez-Navarro, or wildly inconsistent talents such as Petra Kvitova and Ana Ivanovic.
Despite that dominance, Serena has an odd disparity in her recent Grand Slam results. Since 2012, she has played in all 15 majors, and her results include seven titles, six losses before the quarterfinals and just one defeat in the final three rounds. Among her seven losses, three opponents were unseeded, while the others were seeded between 14 and 29, with one major title between the seven women combined (belonging to Ivanovic). She hasn’t lost to a top-10 player at a Slam since Sam Stosur’s stunning upset in the 2011 U.S. Open final, a match that only gets stranger as time passes.
All that is to say that if Serena is to be derailed in her path to holding all four majors, and possibly claiming them all in the same season, it’s much likelier to be an upstart, a player with nothing to lose, than it is a top peer whose game is entrenched due to success.
It’s hard to think of a better candidate to stand in the way of history than Garbine Muguruza, her opponent in the Wimbledon final on Saturday. Far from a household name, the 21-year-old is one of those seven who’ve knocked Williams out of a Slam recently. That victory came at last year’s French Open, when Muguruza’s 6-2, 6-2 win in the second round put an end to Serena’s title defense in Paris.
To be clear: an upset in this final is unlikely, especially since this is a reversal of that match: Williams is off her worst surface and Muguruza is on her’s, despite the fact this has been her most successful run at a major.
Muguruza, the Venezuelan-turned-Spaniard, has a chance though because she has a rare combination of talent and nerve. Both have been on display all tournament, most notably when she steadied herself after wasting a 6-2, 3-1 lead over Radwanska in the semis. Having dropped six games in a row due to a bout of nerves as well as strong play from Radwanska, she bounced back and took six of the final eight games of the third and final set.
She grew up watching Williams, yet she’s not intimidated in the face of a legend:
"If you want to win a Grand Slam final, when you dream, you want Serena in the final" — Garbine Muguruza
— Christopher Clarey (@christophclarey) July 9, 2015
That courage will be needed, as Williams is nearly unstoppable in major finals, with a pristine 19-4 record. Serena will play service games where her opponent is lucky to get a racquet on a single first serve. Muguruza has faced her multiple times now and should be accustomed to that.
Williams has a huge edge in experience and recent Wimbledon finals have shown how much that can matter in the sport’s most prestigious match. In 2013, Marion Bartoli, a former finalist, overwhelmed Sabine Lisicki (who had beaten Serena en route), and last year, Kvitova, the 2011 champion, swept Genie Bouchard off the court in under an hour.
Muguruza’s track record suggests this will not be so this time around. She’s a big match player who doesn’t shy away from the spotlight. This will be about their respective games. Williams has almost no weaknesses, with a misfiring return of serve as the only somewhat glaring one over the past two weeks. To have a chance, Muguruza will need to be firing her cross-court backhand to keep Serena moving, avoid double faults, and not get in a rut with her still-developing forehand.
Prediction: Serena in three sets in a highly entertaining final