The 2015 Wimbledon ladies’ final will be contested between the very familiar Serena Williams and a 21 year old named Garbiñe Muguruza; if you don’t follow tennis during its 11-month slog of a season, you probably have no idea who the latter is. Muguruza has only played two matches at the US Open, and she’s lost both of them. Prior to this run at Wimbledon, her record on the hallowed grass courts was an unimpressive 2-3. And if you pay attention to the three big U.S. tournaments – Indian Wells, Miami and Cincinnati – well, you probably missed her: Over the past two years, she’s won just two matches at all three events. Combined.
But Garbiñe Muguruza is the last obstacle Serena Williams will have to face on Saturday if she is to complete a second Serena Slam, and place herself three-fourths of the way towards a Calendar Slam.
And while you might not know Garbiñe Muguruza, Serena Williams certainly does. The 21-year-old handed the dominant Serena her worst Grand Slam defeat at last year’s French Open, scalding her 6-2, 6-2 in just 64 minutes. In January, the pair met at the Australian Open and produced one of the better matches of the entire tournament. Serena ended up taking the contest 6-2 in the third set, but that scoreline is somewhat deceiving of the tussle that preceded it. After all, Muguruza badly botched a volley that would have given her a break lead early in that decisive set. She couldn’t recover, and Serena ended up taking the title three rounds later.
Born in Venezuela, Muguruza moved to Spain at age six, though, atypically for that nation’s players, she has a game better suited to faster surfaces rather than the venerated red clay. If you caught some of her semifinal win over former Wimbledon finalist Agnieszka Radwanska, you were probably awed by the very obvious power Garbiñe possesses. Few women on tour hit the ball with her kind of pace, and she can generate without much fuss on either her forehand or her backhand side. However, behind all that pace, there are quite a few nuances that make her game fascinating to watch.
An ideal Muguruza point is one where she is able to be aggressive with either her forehand or her backhand. She is unafraid to change the direction of the ball, but she’s more consistent and effective when she does it with her two-handed backhand – the more solid wing. Muguruza loves to step inside the baseline and bully people around. She loves to hit sharp cross-court backhands, but she is also very adept at surprising people with down-the-line shots off that side, which become doubly devastating when you see how hard she hits them.
Muguruza is also a tactically sound player. This Wimbledon she’s played a slew of very good, but flawed, players on her way to the final. Angelique Kerber, Caroline Wozniacki, Timea Bacsinszky and Radwanska are all ranked between 5 and 15 in the world. They’re all excellent defenders, and great returners of serve. They all have phenomenal backhands. And they all have two problematic weaknesses: Unimposing forehands and very soft second serves. In all of these matches, Muguruza targeted those weaknesses and reaped the rewards.
You’d expect a tall woman like Muguruza – she’s a genuine 6-footer – to possess a deadly serve, and she cracks the Top 10 in percentage of first serve points won and total percentage of serve points won. She also possesses deceptive athleticism, able to hold her own when forced to cover large areas of the court. Not only that, but she tends to produce very effective defensive or counter-punching shots from difficult positions of the court.
So why hasn’t she even been ranked higher than 19th in the world? How does she only have one WTA title to her name? Well, there are a few reasons: Muguruza essentially wiped out the second half of her very promising 2013 season in order to have surgery on her ankle. She also took the opportunity to fix an issue with her nasal septum that was giving her breathing problems. There was also the somewhat political, yet ultimately very private issue of choosing which country to represent in international competitions like the Fed Cup and the Olympics. Muguruza was indecisive for a year and a half, and it took a toll:
“It was terrible. Everybody was asking me, ‘Why don’t you play for Spain? Why don’t you play for Venezuela?'” she said. “It was an important decision. My family is involved, my tennis, everything.”
More than anything, Muguruza has been learning how to harness her powerful game week in and week out. After all, figuring out how to execute at the highest level on a consistent basis is the most challenging task a tennis player faces in his or her professional life. Muguruza is prone to excellent results at big tournaments – she’s made the quarterfinals at the French Open two years in a row now – but Garbiñe is also liable to go through spells where anyone can beat her. If she loses the tactical compass of a match, she starts to mistrust her forehand, the double faults start pouring in (she cracks the Top 10 in that category, too), bad body language takes a hold and soon enough, she’s gone. In 2015, the Spaniard has lost in her first or second match at 8 of the 13 events she’s entered.
But through all the ups and downs, the immense potential was easy to see. And even when guessing how far Garbiñe would go in a given event can be hazardous, there has been one common thread so far: If Muguruza ended up in a big show court, she wasn’t likely to shrink from the spotlight. “I like to play on the big courts, don’t have fear of the big names,” she said back in February. And, here’s what she had to say on Twitter after her semifinal win yesterday:
— Garbiñe Muguruza (@GarbiMuguruza) July 9, 2015
This attitude will certainly come in handy as Garbiñe makes her Slam final debut against a woman making her 25th appearance on such a stage. Muguruza will also have the benefit of not having to carry the bulk of the pressure, since most expect Serena to handle the newbie and claim that most impressive second Serena Slam.
But you better believe Serena will be wary of the situation. She knows the woman 12 years her junior is not the least bit intimidated by her or the opportunity. And she’s very much aware of how devastating Garbiñe Muguruza’s tennis can be when it comes together like it has during this fortnight at Wimbledon. Making history is never easy.